Let’s ignore for a moment the debate about when Presidents' Day should occur in the national calendar and acknowledge that today is the actual anniversary of George Washington’s birthday. I wonder what he might think about this great noisy, messy nation that he played such a key role in founding?
Would he be surprised to learn that the Louvre Abu Dhabi recently acquired a Gilbert Stuart portrait of him from the Armand Hammer Foundation of Los Angeles? Painted 23 years after Washington’s death in 1822, it features the president at his desk with a sword resting in the crook of his left elbow and the fingers of his right hand pressed against a document. A rainbow glows through the window behind him, reflecting the promise of the fledgling nation.
It will be hung in a gallery along with a portrait of Napoleon that explores, according to the museum’s curator, the growing role of the individual in the 18th and 19th centuries. One would only hope that viewers would glean from this display the emerging prominence of the individual’s voice in representative government, the founding of the two great republics of the 18th century, and the role that leaders play in creating them.
Washington might also be surprised to share his birthday this year with the 35th anniversary celebration of the “Miracle on Ice” that took place at Lake Placid during the 1980 winter Olympics. A ragtag team of amateur hockey players recruited from around the US defied all the odds. With the brilliant coaching of their tough leader, Herb Brooks, they beat the intimidating Russian powerhouse team whom everyone knew to be the best in the world. At the height of the cold war, with US hostages in Iran, and American morale as depressed as the economy, the Russians trounced us in the preliminaries. The US turned in a singular tournament performance, returned to beat the Russians in a 4-3 semi-final victory, and then Finland for the gold two days later. It was a great David and Goliath moment that reinvigorated the nation.
Perhaps Washington would wear that enigmatic Mona Lisa expression that Stuart liked to paint. The “Miracle” sounds a bit like his revolutionary army taking on the world’s best military force and coming out the winner. He always knew we had it in us.