Using Washington Today
George Washington's image today represents a paradox,
juxtaposing an icon embodying America's foundational virtues of
piety, honest, and humility with an increasingly exploited symbol
that has been emptied of value by overuse. This exploitation,
however, did not gain momentum until the second half of the
twentieth century. For the eighteenth, nineteenth, and much of
the twentieth century, the image of George Washington evoked the
specters of aristocracy, domestic virtue, and good business
sense. Schoolchildren were constantly inculcated with the
lessons of the cherry tree myth. For example, until the 1950's,
cookie cutter sets were not complete without the requisite
hatchet for George Washington sugar cookies (Marling, 15).
Today, while Washington is still legendary for his moral
rectitude, and his image is invoked in advertisements for
colonial revival furniture and in the invitations of high society
functions, to many the commercialization of his image has emptied
it of meaning. Now, the most prevalent image of Washington
appears each February in a phalanx of department store sales and
car dealership ads. Rampant commercialization has arguably bled
the symbol of its significance. Barry Schwartz writes "the
transformation is inevitable. To expect that a nation should
turn out, year after year, in heartfelt veneration for a man who
died many years ago is to make unrealistic on demands on its
capacity for emotional attachment" (199).
Some meaning must remain, for Washington's image has
reached the peculiar distinction of being the object of parody.
He is lampooned for those qualities for which we revere him--
honesty, piety and virtue, and for the omnipresence of his image.
In the above cartoon, Gary Larson depicts "Washington Crossing
the Street," demonstrating the adaptability of Washington's myth,
and its instant recognition. Edward Sorel's drawing "Nixon
Crossing the Delaware" proves that the symbol of Washington still
resonates within the American consciousness. The substitution of
Nixon for Washington highlights the jarring contrast between the
perceived steady guidance of The Father of Our Country and
Nixon's rocky presidency. The fact that Americans find humor in
the scene asserts the continued strength of Washington's myth.
This paradox of constant reverence but increasing
irrelevance does not mean that Washington is fading from
America's collective memory. The Washington Monument still
stands as the pinnacle of our nation's capital, and remains an
omnipresent icon. Although Far Side comics and abundant
advertising may signal a growing cynicism, we still need George
Washington. "The more modern we become, in fact, the more
desperately we cling to our Washingtons, to our old-fashioned
heroes, to an imagined colonial past, to the good old days when
patriots stood firm on their pedestals" (Marling, viii).
Return to Washington Home Page