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.