Restoring the Primacy of Public Service
Our politicians must again view their primary function in Washington as public service, not as the perpetuation of their own ambitions. The balance most of today’s politicians strike between their reelection and actual public service is hideously biased towards the former.
Fortunately, to find a model for how our elected officials should act, we can look to our founding father, George Washington. Washington was a hero to his contemporaries and, as Garry Wills explains in his book Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment, “like the Roman Cincinnatus (the famous Roman general who resigned from a position of near absolute dictatorial authority and returned to his farm and family), Washington perfected the art of getting power by giving it away. He did this when he resigned as Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Army, and again when he declined to run for a third term as President.”
Wills relates a story of a conversation during the Revolutionary War between the British King George III and the artist Benjamin West, who knew both the King and Washington. Asked by the King what General Washington would do if he prevailed, West told the King he thought that Washington would return to his farm. “If he does that,” the King is supposed to have remarked, “He will be the greatest man in the world.”
How has the culture in Congress evolved so far away from Washington’s values? How did we get to a place where policies most of our legislators agree would be good for America do not get enacted because concerns of partisan politics or generating continuing political contributions get in the way? Our elected officials’ jobs are to move this nation forward, regardless of whether doing so puts their reelection at risk. As my friend Jasmine Davis has said, “We need more Washingtons in Washington.”