The more I see of world leaders, the more I appreciate George Washington. Washington, the permanent Greatest American in my book, understood that power is necessary for a leader. Even more importantly, he understood that giving up power is a great virtue in a leader.
I am reminded of this by Vladimir Putin. It is important for the world that Russia become truly democratic. The fall of the Stalinist Soviet Union -- the worst government ever, in my estimation -- was a great victory for humanity. The idea of free elections in Russia still lifts my spirits. But it appears that Russia is sinking back into strong-man rule. Putin thinks he is indispensable, and he will twist the constitution out of recognition to stay in power. This is sad, and is likely to turn tragic.
Africa is full of independence leaders -- the "George Washingtons of their country" -- who couldn't let go of power. Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is currently the worst of this breed, but by no means the last or the only one. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela tried to amend the constitution to make himself president for life. The voters rejected this ploy and, so far, he has said he will accept their verdict.
One of the most George Washington-like figures on the world stage now is King Juan Carlos of Spain. I don't like monarchy, and rarely find myself praising kings, but I like this man. When the fascist dictator Franco died in 1975, he left power to the young king, whom he had tried to groom. Juan Carlos, however, backed the movement to create a democratic constitution for a parliamentary monarchy, which the Spanish voters approved on this day in 1978. In 1981 a group of dissident Spanish colonels seized the parliament and attempted a coup, which they called on the king to ratify. Instead, Juan Carlos gave a national television address condemning the coup and supporting democracy. The coup collapsed that day. Recently, Juan Carlos had to listen to Hugo Chavez rail against a former Spanish prime minister as a fascist. The king had enough of the would-be president-for-life, and suggested that he shut up.
Washington would probably not have told even Hugo Chavez to shut up. He would have fixed him with his steely gaze and firm jaw and ultimately overwhelmed the lesser man with superior self control.
We need more Washingtons, now and always.