Monday, April 14, 2008

On Politics

I don't know if any of you have been watching the HBO mini-series on John Adams, but what started out as a slow burn for me became a very intense viewing experience with the past couple of episodes. And John Adams, while a pivotal and vital member of our Founding Fathers, is a person worthy of discussion in examining our nation's history, I find my mind focusing on George Washington instead.

Washington, our nation's first president, is a man who I think goes greatly unknown for many people nowadays. Yes, we know the legend of the man; his cherry tree antics and his wooden teeth (which weren't really wooden). But his presidency is seemingly lost in the fabric of political history. He is our only president who didn't belong to a political party. And true to his lack of a political affiliation, the man was actually quite opposed to the (even then) nastiness of the two-party system.

The biggest challenge facing the United States during President Washington's time in office was to keep the states united. This country was not only brand new, but it was fragile in many ways. The historic separation of the colonies was an institutional problem for those trying to establish (and legitimize) a national government. And if you think people were opposed to government intrusion today, try asking your average "American" what he or she felt of a federal government in the 1790s. It is nothing short of a miracle that the Constitution was ratified.

But Washington was the face and name to that national unity. Because he didn't ascribe to a specific set of party beliefs, he was able to bring all parties to the table. And he ran a unity government, including vehement opponents within his own cabinet. Alexander Hamilton, who was by all accounts an asshole, was hell-bent on forcing federal strength on the states. And Thomas Jefferson, a hypocritical back-stabber, was selfishly pushing French politics and Southern States matters. And Washington sat at the center, guiding both sides to compromise. This man was the epitome of a leader. And what's even better than his ability to engage those who were so passionate and unwavering, was the fact that Washington knew what his reputation and standing meant to the country. He was a substantial force, he was his own institution, begging the nation to be thoughtful in its passions. And his power, significant and unmatched by others, was something he used without selfishness or personal gain.

This is not to say that Washington was a pure soul. He, like any other politician, cared a great deal about how others viewed him. When he signed the Jay Treaty, which effectively put America on the side of the English in their fight with the French, Washington lost a lot of his Teflon coating. Jefferson, who was far too deeply enthralled by the French Revolution to be rational at the time, turned on Washington in the most unfair of ways-- by feeding stories to the press that the President was feeble-minded and not in control of his government. Washington was greatly hurt by the betrayal, and obsessed over it until his final days in office. But the example of how Washington's political fortunes soured a bit, shows exactly what has always been a part of our nation's political history.

Politics is not a process that always produces the right results or judgments. Politics is the art of the possible, which is often achieved through the techniques of distortion and hyperbole. If you feel frustrated by the current political climate (and the never-ending campaign cycle) I say to you "Look to President Washington." He called party rivalry excessive and in danger of becoming "a fire not to be quenched." Yes, he understood that people would have differing opinions on issues, but he sought to avoid the party platform mentality, where you were either one thing or another. Let each issue be decided on its own merits. Imagine that? An ad hoc treatment of the issues themselves, free from party posturing.

Now, I contrast Washington's example (played to perfection by David Morse in the "John Adams" mini-series) with the character of Jack Stanton in "Primary Colors" (the 1997 movie not-so-loosely based on Bill Clinton's first run for the presidency). Both were on TV today. Both shook my brain by their stark differences. 200-plus years later, I think we need to give President Washington some more thought. Unity is not a dead idea.


Rickey said...

John Adams became good? Since when did this happen...? These are things Rickey needed to be aware of before he cleared the first 6 episodes from his DVR...

AmyV said...

the whole series has been fascinating and i thought morse's portrayal of washington was wonderful. my favorite hamilton moment was where he's telling adams how the uniforms should be and how when the soldiers turned their heads,their eyes should be lined up with their buttons, etc. i almost fell off the sofa.

but Paul Giamatti is a complete revelation in the role of John Adams.

fact is, all the founding fathers were outstanding in their own ways, and completely fallible in others. one still can't forget that Jefferson penned that fabulous historical document, the Declaration of Independence, and all the things wrong with him still must be tempered by that fact.

excellent commentary, Adam. food for thought. I have but one nit: I didn't laugh out loud once!

Rickey said...

If Rickey may quote Adam directly: "It's Pigvomit playing the role John Adams!"

Ah well... anyone know if they will be reairing the entire run?

TheJackSack said...


To be honest, catch Episode 5 (the one with Adams as VP under Washington. It was by far the best of the series. But overall, the show got better with each installment. I can guarantee you the several dozen HBO channels on our cable system will reair it this month.


I agree- I think Tom Hanks said in an interview that they set out to fully represent what life in this period looked and felt like. The set design and costumes are unbelievably meticulous in detail and authenticity.

Sorry for no giggles. I'll come back with something goofy, don't worry.

Anonymous said...

Well - first - a wag once remarked that the downward spiral of society and the proof that evolution was a fallacy, was to contrast "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country", with, "Define' is' ". in the case of the lecher of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or 'Screw you!" from Sen. McCain...
Second - I do not know if it is true but have always heard that the politicians of the day often worked with no pay or low pay, from a desire to serve the country they helped birth; and today, the primary objective of any politician is to line his or her pockets and stuff the offshore bank accounts, In fact, the mayor of our own little town is asking for a raise from 95 K per year, to 145 K per year because - as he modestly says - 'Being the mayor is a very hard job!"
It must be really tough.. And I'm sure that not many of us "24" fans could manage to squeeze by on a mere 95 thousand dollars per year.
Anyway - Giamatti remains pretty amazing and the series is the only one I know of in which the US Government gave a pre-release publicity shot by issuing a stamp.
Rock on, Uncle Sam!
And = a Sam Adams for everyone, on me.

TheJackSack said...

Sam Adams on the house!

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