Monday, March 1, 2010

President Washington and Party Politics

In his farewell speech September 17, 1796, President George Washington spoke some truths about, and to, the then-new country, the United States of America.

In President Washington's mind, as he stressed in his address, he though one factor we had to guard against was sectionalism -- as he couched it, the Atlantic versus the West and the North versus the South.

Of course, anyone with even a vague knowledge of American history knows that a mere 65 years later, the North and South put that to the test.

But what of today, when the divides aren't so much geographical -- though those do exist -- as much as ideological, reflected in the current deadlock between our two main parties.

David Ignatius, Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post (clickable link), has written a thoughtful column titled "The U.S. is at a crucial point in defining its direction" (clickable link). Below is the reply I posted in the comments.

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President Washington warned in his farewell address in September, 1796 against party politics coming to dominate our national political life, a warning we well could heed now, when "The Wall of Washington" -- our own version of the Berlin Wall -- dominates that life.

It would be quite salubrious for our body politic, in the form of a joint session of Congress with the President and Vice-president in attendance, along with all Supreme Court Justices, in the audience -- not on the podium, but in the audience -- to have that farewell speech read out to them. Read out as a reminder of what, supposedly, we're about. If President Washington got it wrong, well, then, there's little hope for anyone else, over 200 years after he spoke so sagely, perhaps most directly to us in this paragraph:

""""The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Well, today's parties certainly are "sharpened by the spirit of revenge," and need knocked back, slapped down, into their respective places -- i.e., necessary parts of a whole to provide a whole government for America.

They've both lost sight of that; hence, the Tea Party et al.

Who to deliver such an address? I would propose to invite Mr. Vaclav Havel, former C
zech dissident then President, after his country's Velvet Revolution, for a "Havel Redux," a reprise of his brilliant speech to a joint session of Congress some 20 years ago, but reading Washington's speech. The entire speech.

After 9/11, we got some sense of ourselves through no small measure of the the words in "What Is an American?" that wonderfully sympathetic late 18th-century essay by a Frenchman-turned American, Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur.

Sometimes an outsider can see us better than we can see ourselves.

I wonder if Mr. Havel would have the stomach for it, though. . . .
3/1/2010 2:34:37 AM (time posted at the Washington Post)

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