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Archive for Wednesday, July 4, 2001

Today’s leaders can match founders

July 4, 2001

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— This Independence Day holiday finds the United States preoccupied, as it has not been for a long time, with the generation that created the nation. It is not a notable anniversary; 225 years is a good long run, but not a landmark. Still, David McCullough's biography of John Adams, one of the architects of the new republic and our second president, tops the New York Times best-seller list, following on the success of another book about the heroes of that era, "Founding Brothers."

This look back to the origins is a matter for celebration. As countless July 4 orators have said over the past two centuries, it really does appear a sign of God's favor that we were blessed with such leaders at the birth of the nation.

But there is another sense in which the Founders can be considered role models. They shared all the human foibles that dismay us about the politicians of today. And thus, they serve to soften our harsh judgments and combat the cynicism to which we are all journalists and the public far too prone.

Consider, please, two descriptive passages about the public officials of that first generation and of our own.

Here is Meg Greenfield, until her death two years ago the editor of the editorial page of The Washington Post, in her posthumous memoir, "Washington," writing about the politicians she knew:

"Since about the mid-1960s, Washington has gradually become more and more a colony of political independent contractors, loners and free-lancers. It is still true that the lone-wolf practitioner cannot get much done in a policy or programmatic sense. But in an era when getting things to happen may have less political value than merely seeming to be on the right side, this doesn't bother nearly as many people in the capital as it should. People market themselves; policy and program become stage props."

Now, this description of the members of the government that met in the capital of New York City in 1789 the first since the Constitution was adopted. It comes from "Affairs of Honor," a lively book written by Joanne B. Freeman, a Yale historian, which the Yale University Press will publish in September.

"There were no organized parties in this unstructured new arena, no set terms of combat or institutionalized rules for battle. Political combat in the new government was like a war without uniforms; it was almost impossible to distinguish friends from foes. ... When the American government sprang to life in the spring of 1789, many were disappointed. Compared with the members of the Continental Congress, the roughly 100 men assembled in the national capital were none too impressive. 'The appointments in general are not so good,' thought Georgia Rep. Abraham Baldwin; the members were less 'heroic' than those in previous congresses, agreed Massachusetts Rep. Fisher Ames. ...

"Personal ambitions and regional jealousies clogged the wheels of government, often reducing the national legislature to little more than a hotbed of name-calling and petty accusations. Illicit bargaining was the rule of the day, rather than honest, open debate and compromise. The public good seemed all but forgotten. Observing the 'yawning listlessness of many here ... their state prejudices, their over-refining spirit in relation to trifles,' Ames felt 'chagrined' . ... George Washington also considered the prevailing 'stupor, or listlessness' a 'matter of deep regret."'

Then, as now, the politicians seemed to contemporary observers to be caught up in pursuit of personal fame, more assiduous in pursuing their individual goals and protecting their own reputations than conscious of their larger responsibilities.

It is possible, of course, that we have always been governed by such self-centered sorts, that the corruption which so many associate with Washington today is endemic in our democracy. But given what this nation has achieved in 225 years, it is more probable that our politicians, for all their foibles and limitations, are capable of acting on occasion with wisdom and foresight, perhaps astonishing themselves as well as their critics.

These flawed and fallible creatures somehow steered the expansion of the United States from a set of Atlantic colonies to a continental nation, fought through a bloody Civil War and reconciled afterward, accepted waves of immigrants from the old world and made them Americans, became the arsenal of democracy in two World Wars, rebuilt their former enemies and struggled with some success to wipe out the shameful heritage of slavery.

The long view would suggest the politicians we have today are not substantially worse than their predecessors and may be as capable of rising to the challenge as those who went before.




David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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