I read the reports of former Vice President Joe Biden’s speech in Iowa and thought about George Washington at Mount Vernon. I visited Washington’s old estate the other day. These men are separated by more than two centuries, but they’re joined by a single question: What is America’s statute of limitations on guilt?
I mean Washington’s and Biden’s, and Donald Trump’s, too.
In Iowa, Biden, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, went after President Trump with both barrels. This is considered a mere starting point, considering Trump’s widely known array of human flaws, which are just waiting to be detailed by all 347 Democrats currently running for president.
At Mount Vernon, the great Washington draws more than a million reverential visitors a year. This is considered a testament to Washington’s widely known array of human strengths, if you overlook the most repugnant flaw of his life.
Washington was 11 when his father died. He left George 10 slaves. Washington told friends he was against slavery, but he never talked about the issue in public. When he married Martha Custis, he got custody of her 221 slaves.
They needed help for all the vastness of Mount Vernon. Six months before he died, Washington wrote a will saying his valet should be freed, and that when Martha died, all the slaves should be given their freedom.
But it didn’t work out. Many of them were considered property of the Custis family estate, which refused to release them.
At Mount Vernon these days, this is considered an afterthought. The old slave quarters were there when my wife and I visited the other day, but they feel like a footnote in the vastness of the estate.
Washington died in 1799. Emotionally, he’s stepped beyond America’s statute of limitations on the sin of slavery. Americans focus on the old man’s good stuff.
Then, we consider Joe Biden. He is widely regarded – particularly among Democrats – as a good guy, a smart student of government and politics, a fellow whose roots are working class, who has suffered more than his share of family pain over the years, and identifies with the plight of ordinary citizens.
His sins are smaller than Washington’s, but much more recent. Does that get them past voters’ statute of emotional limitations?
Some of us still remember Biden’s behavior in the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas fiasco. Biden was pressured into holding Senate hearings on Hill’s complaints of sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Thomas. Biden never took them seriously, and Hill underwent public humiliation.
That was 28 years ago. Watch some of the old video footage, though, and it’s still painful, and it reminds us of last winter and the sexual harassment hearings on Supreme Court nominee Joseph Kavanaugh.
Then, there’s abortion.
The other day, Biden reaffirmed his support for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funding for most abortions. The next day, after pressure from Democrats who pointed out that the Hyde Amendment disproportionately affects poor women and women of color who can’t afford abortion, he suddenly saw the light of day and reversed himself. Good timing.
According to the president, Biden mentioned Trump “76 times” in his Iowa speech. Hopefully, this means Biden’s just getting started. Trump’s flaws have been out there for years, big as life, waiting to be fully exposed.
But Biden’s no innocent. He hasn’t conned the whole country the way Trump has. He never owned slaves, the way Washington did. But his flaws are well known. What we don’t know is: As we move into the future, how long do we hold onto the past?
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).