All right, so George Washington’s biographer made up that story about the 6-year-old future president fessing up to damaging his father’s cherry tree with a hatchet. But the young store clerk Abraham Lincoln apparently was a stickler for making sure his customers got their due. And once you get past the irony of a made-up myth about little George’s honesty, as the Mount Vernon website explains, the larger point remains: to show readers that “Washington’s public greatness was due to his private virtues.”
The Honest Abe and cherry tree tales leaped to mind when it became clear a few days ago that there were truthiness issues with not just one but two beneficiaries of President Donald Trump’s big-hearted policies. These were the “You just won a new car!” State of the Union moments as applause erupted in the House chamber and millions of TV viewers no doubt nodded appreciatively at this evidence of the president’s goodness and generosity.
State of the Union distortions
Trump described Janiyah Davis of Philadelphia as one of “countless American children … trapped in failing government schools” and told her, “Your long wait is over.” She would be the lucky recipient of a scholarship to the school of her choice — and, it turned out, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would personally foot the bill.
But Janiyah attends Math, Science and Technology Community Charter School III, an independently managed public school so well thought of, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, it received 6,500 applications for 100 slots. The fourth-grader had been a student at the private Olney Christian School, but switched in September to the free public charter school.
Will she now stay where she is, return to Olney Christian, or pick some other private school? Unclear. “I don’t view MaST as a school you want to get out of at all. I view it as a great opportunity,” her mother, Stephanie Davis, told The Inquirer.
Trump also called out the Opportunity Zone tax breaks in “our great Republican tax cuts.” He said they are leading wealthy people to pour money into poor neighborhoods and “helping Americans like Army veteran Tony Rankins,” a former drug addict who lost “his job, his house and his family” until he “found a construction company that invests in Opportunity Zones.”
It’s true the company Rankins works for invests in Opportunity Zones, the Associated Press reported. And he did get a construction job and turn his life around. But that was two years ago, and four months before the government had even finalized which areas qualified for the tax breaks. The job he had was not located in one of them. Rankins “doesn’t work at a site taking advantage of the breaks and never has done so,” the AP said.
Trump’s short-termism:Washington and Lincoln worried about future generations, not tweets and public opinion
Let’s set aside for now reports that suggest these tax breaks are a boon to wealthy people instead of the low-income communities they were meant to help; the cringeworthiness of two rich Americans who oversee education for all Americans doling out charity to one little girl; and the message, intentional or not, of the supposedly (but not actually) needy Janiyah and Rankins being black while the deployed Army sergeant reunited with his stunned wife (more made-for-TV Trump largess!) is white.
Could they not have found a child who actually needed help? Could they not have found a person whose life really did improve as a result of the Opportunity Zone tax break? Were they unaware of the complications and inaccuracies in the narratives they were pushing? Did they know and not care? Did they know and think no one would notice? Or did they think people would notice and not care?
‘Speak not injurious words’
Maybe I took this hard because fact-checking is so central to journalism, including (and I’d argue especially) in opinion columns. And maybe it’s because the facts were dribbling out as Presidents Day approached.
Our first president, the father of our country, was in most if not all ways the polar opposite of today’s leader of our country. As a teenager, he copied into his school book scores of “rules of civility” in circulation at the time. Rule 1: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.” Rule 110, the last one: “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Ce[les]tial fire Called Conscience.”
Fashionable shopper in chief:Go out and shop the Presidents Day sales. It’s what George Washington would have done!
Those are far from the only rules that have eerie resonance today — among them: “Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof” (No. 79), and “Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest Scoff at none although they give Occasion.” (No. 65).
The Mount Vernon chroniclers say the exercise of writing these rules of civility in a notebook is now seen as a “formative influence” on Washington’s character. That is fortunate for us in ways that go well beyond civility.
Washington was heroic in his military career and in his modesty. His 1796 Farewell Address is sprinkled with references to his “defects” and “errors,” his “very fallible judgment,” his “incompetent abilities” and the “inferiority” of his qualifications. He was heroic as well in his determination, after two terms, to retire and demonstrate the peaceful, voluntary transfer of power from one elected citizen leader to another.
It was a public reflection of private virtues that are sorely missed.
Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY and author of “The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock.” Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence