American Democracy: Listening to Two Georges —by Jinny Batterson
Back before most holidays were on Mondays, we celebrated George Washington’s birthday each year on February 22. Though the fable about young Georgie chopping down the cherry tree and then owning up to his misdeed is likely more legend than truth, it is quite true that our first national President could easily have been re-elected in 1796 and chose not to run for another term. Instead, Washington sent a letter to Congress expressing his sense of the young country, thanking his colleagues for the opportunity to serve, looking forward to his retirement, and warning the new republic of some of the pitfalls it might face going forward. He cautioned against the forces of geographical sectionalism, political factionalism, and interference by foreign powers in the nation’s domestic affairs.
For the past century and a half, nearly every year around the time of Washington’s birthday, a U.S. Senator has been assigned to read Washington’s entire farewell letter and then to inscribe his or her name and brief remarks into a leather bound book maintained by the Secretary of the Senate (https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Washingtons_Farewell_Address.htm). I haven’t yet found a record of which Senator will have the honor of doing the 2020 reading.
As this year’s election cycle heats up, I am often outraged by the depths of corruption in the current U.S. national administration. Rather than “draining the swamp,” this administration has done its utmost to fill said swamp with sleazier, bigger alligators. Factionalism seems the order of the day. Both documented instances and rumors of foreign interference in our electoral process abound. Our current chief executive rarely confers with advisors and bridles at any criticism. He relishes vilifying opponents. He fires or forces resignations of long-term military and civil servants seemingly at will. He believes that only his views and desires matter, a sort of universal pass—“you have to let me, because I’m the star.”
It’s likely to take a great deal of work by a lot of us, combined with a small modicum of luck, to reorient our national politics, whose slide into sectionalism, factionalism, and interference by foreign powers has tainted both political parties for a good while. Within my voting adulthood since 1968, we’ve had one Presidential resignation, two Presidential impeachments, plus several other national scandals. During the same period, we’ve had major changes in our media landscapes, our manufacturing processes, our economy, our demographics, our communications and transportation technologies, and the state of the global economy. Nevertheless, President Washington’s concerns are still relevant.
A more recent former President had a bit of trouble correctly quoting an earlier proverb, but got the gist of it across. In 2002, George W. Bush admonished a Tennessee audience with a paraphrase of the aphorism: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” It’s high time we listened to both Georges.