Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Being George Washington by Glenn Beck

I love reading Glenn Beck books. They are so accessible and well written. He is not bombastic or dramatic, but speaks in common sense, every man language.

In the book, Being George Washington, Glenn Beck not only traces the history and character of our first president, but he encourages us use the man as our ideal and role model.

Beck opens with the story of Washington's defeat at a battle in Pennsylvania during the French and Indian wars. Although he miraculously survived, his British troops were undone by a clearly inferior force. The seed of an unthinkable thought planted itself in his mind that would not fully germinate for another 20 years. The British could be defeated.

The first vignette Beck recounts, in vivid detail, is the crossing of the Delaware. The story is riveting and the reader is engrossed as the familiar tale becomes new again. We discover the humility and wisdom of a man who enabled others to follow him into what should have been a suicidal mission. The soldiers had already made extensive sacrifices to even be a part of the Continental Army, but they pushed on and followed their honorable and trusted leader. The lesson for us is obvious.

Next we see Washington making his winter camp at Valley Forge. The despair and horrific conditions are well-known. Once again, we see a man of such humility, that despite the destitute conditions, his men remain loyal. Here, the soldiers become Americans. They bond, and unite and become a true fighting force that will emerge from the winter ready for battle. Washington welcomes the eccentric Baron von Steuben into the camp to help bring discipline to the soldiers. Despite the inflated credentials and lack of English skills, Washington knew exactly how to use this man and his abilities to further the cause. He looked beyond race, creed, nationality, and saw an American. Washington used the dire circumstances to prepare. What may have looked like luck to others, often was the result of plain, hard work. Even so, he did not take credit for success, but gave thanks to "the great Author" for caring for them.

Washington, like the rest of the nation, was betrayed by one of his most trusted compatriots, Benedict Arnold. The highest ranking officer of the Continental Army recognized the disappointment Arnold felt having been passed over for promotion and denied credit for the victory at Saratoga. Washington personally made sure Arnold received his desired appointment - West Point. Unbeknownst to Washington, Arnold planned to use the knowledge he would gain at West Point to help the British. His betrayal of the country was a personal betrayal of Washington. The example of this quintessential traitor provides a perfect contrast to Washington. George Washington dealt with the same incompetency of the government, the same physical sacrifices, the same challenges, yet one man rose above it and the other succumbed to the worst of temptations. "Two men, two choices, two destinies, and on invaluable lesson for today: always be on guard. It's easy to let seemingly mundane annoyances pile up until they boil over. It's easy to make the right decision ninety-nine straight times before greed finally gets the best of you."

With the help of the French, British incompetence and God, Washington cornered Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. Here, Washington's humility really becomes apparent. First of all, he listened to and took advice from those around him. He eschewed the "old-school European traditional top-down military system" and rather found innovative and practical ways to win from those he trusted. He knew his strengths and limitations. Washington did not win the war alone. He depended on others to accomplish great things. The second example of his humility is seen in how he treated the British upon their defeat. Cornwallis ended up toasting Washington, knowing he was in the presence of greatness.

Eighteen months after the victory, Washington faced his most formidable battle. His troops were threatening a coup if not properly paid by the congress. George Washington recognized this moment as the most dangerous one yet to face America. Their hard won gains for independence could be revoked in an instant if the military took it upon itself to undo the victory. Washington pleaded with the men with all the eloquence he could muster, to have faith in the Congress and give them more time to make good on their promises. Seeing he was making little headway, he remembered a note from a congressman he had tucked into his pocket. Embarrassed at having to put on his glasses to read the note, he remarked, "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in service to my country." This man had given his all, and now he asked a sacrifice of them once more. They would follow him to the very end. But this decisive moment came from a lifetime of integrity. Had George Washington not been a man of exceedingly high character and integrity, the nation could very well have been still-born.

Beck then follows Washington home and to with it the knowledge that the Union needed him again. Yorktown was not the end, but the beginning of a new nation.  With the Articles of Confederation unable to govern the country, Washing was called to a Constitutional Convention. In the interim period, Washington, though having received very little formal education, immersed himself in the theory and practice of republican government. In his humility, he listened and learned. These skills would come in handy at the convention and he worked behind the scenes to create compromise. Even Washington himself was not perfectly happy with the outcome, but he knew compromise was key, without sacrificing core principles. We, too, need to learn to be in it for the long haul, to celebrate small victories, and compromise in the name of forward progress, without sacrificing principles.

Finally, we come to the end of the presidency, and shortly thereafter the life, of Washington. As he wrote his farewell address to the nation, he recalled a lifetime of wisdom gained through experience. He penned his goodbye to a nation to which he had given his all and left us solid guidance for the future. He'd seen the French Revolution and knew exactly where America could end up if we did not heed his advice. Three years later, Washington died at his beloved Mount Vernon. Truly great, Washington set the bar high. He knew his example would lead the nation for generations. "But if Washington taught us one thing, it's that doing the easy thing is rarely the right thing, and doing the right thing is rarely easy."

This book was a joy to read. Beck takes creative liberties and writes the historical portions with a literary flourish. This style makes the reader feel as if he actually gets to know George Washington. When the first president lays down his pen after crafting his farewell address, I had tears in my eyes. It's hard to say goodbye to a man who's been gone for 213 years, but I look forward to the day I can shake his hand in eternity.

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