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George Washington Didn’t Lie, and That’s Not All

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Mark Weston is the author of the forthcoming "Giants of Japan, the Lives of Japan's Most Influential Men and Women" (Kodansha America)

George Washington’s birthday has lately been little more than an excuse for a clothing or stereo sale. About all that most people can remember about the father of our country is that he chopped down a cherry tree, which is a myth, and that he had wooden teeth, and even this is wrong. His false teeth were made from a mixture of human teeth, cow teeth and ivory.

Washington was a great general and a great president, but what we should honor him for most is his retirement. He set the precedent for leaving office after two terms as president, saying in effect that eight years in power is enough. Ever since he did that in 1797, our nation has been spared the pain that leaders in other countries cause when they cling to political power too long.

Some of the 20th century’s leading dictators committed their worst atrocities after they had been in power eight years.

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If, for instance, Mao Tse-tung had followed Washington’s example and retired in 1957 after eight years in office, he would be known today as the man who strengthened China and freed it from foreign domination. Instead, we remember Mao as the instigator of the great Leap Forward in 1958, a disastrous economic program of backyard steel furnaces and forced communication that by 1961 had caused nearly 30 million Chinese to starve to death. Even then, if Mao had retired gracefully, the Chinese people would probably still revere him.

But Mao could not let go. By 1965 he made his “Little Red Book” required reading and spurred students across China to harass anyone opposed to him. The tragedy and chaos of the “Cultural Revolution” are well-known. But it is worth remembering that it began because a man who had already held supreme power for 16 years could not bring himself to share power with anyone else or to retire from politics altogether.

The irony is that Mao was an admirer of Washington. As a young man, he studied Washington’s guerrilla tactics in the Revolutionary War in great detail. If only he had followed Washington’s example as an old man and left office in 1957, China would be 20 years farther along the road to modernization.

In Germany, if Adolf Hitler had retired in January 1941 after eight years in power, he would not have invaded Soviet Russia, declared war on America or turned his persecution of the Jews into the Holocaust, and millions of people who died might have lived longer lives. Hitler would still be seen today as a hate-filled tyrant but perhaps not as the most evil man in history.

Even in democracies it is hard for a leader to stay humble after many years in power. Ferdinand Marcos was twice elected president of the Philippines, but in 1972, in his eighth year in office, he declared martial law and ended his nation’s democracy so that he could stay in power.

In India, the normally level-headed Indira Gandhi did not start jailing her opponents during her tyrannical “state of emergency” until 1975, when she had held office for nine years.

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The precedent that Washington began by not running for reelection in 1796 lasted 144 years. Only in 1940 and 1944, as America armed for and fought World War II, did Franklin Roosevelt run for third and fourth terms as president. But six years after Roosevelt’s death, in 1951, Washington’s two-term tradition became the law of the land as the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.

The wisdom of the amendment is clear. Power is addictive, and few men or women will give it up if they do not have to. Washington did so at age 65, wisely and willingly, and this is what we should remember, gratefully, on his birthday.

Under a bright blue sky on March 4, 1797, Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth swore in John Adams as the second president of the United States. In a letter to his wife, Adams wrote that Washington “was as serene and unclouded as the day . . . Methought I heard him say, ‘Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which one of us will be the happiest!’ ”

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