Restoring the Primacy of Public Service —
The Example of George Washington
Our politicians must again view their primary function in Washington as public service, not as the perpetuation of their own holding office. While our Congress is full of well-intentioned, intelligent and strong men and women, the balance between politicians' time and energy spent on their reelection and actual public service has careened toward reelection. Among the most conservative of Republicans, the most liberal of Democrats, and those in between, compromise is only generally possible if politicians put public service first.
Fortunately, to find a model for how our elected officials should act, we need only to look to our founding father, George Washington. Washington provides a model of public service that we should expect from all of our politicians.
During his active political life, George Washington identified with Cincinnatus, the famous Roman general who resigned from a position of near absolute dictatorial authority and returned to his farm and family. In Washington’s time Cincinnatus was regarded as an example of ideal political leadership; that is, a leader who led without personal ambition.
Washington was a hero to his contemporaries and, as Garry Wills explains in his book Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment, Washington willingly sought to meet his countrymen's expectations of him as a political hero. Yet what constituted political heroism then was very different than our conception of it today.
According to Wills, "Like the Roman Cincinnatus, 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. This was virtuous in the sense of the word when Washington did these things: public spirited."
"Washington resigned his Commission as Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Army in a series of goodbyes, the last in Annapolis, Maryland, on December 23, 1783. He had served for seven years, never returning to his home in Mt. Vernon. [Some biographers have argued that if he had gone home the Revolutionary Army would have gone home too and the American Revolution would have been lost.] He had served with no pay and always with the understanding that when independence was won, he would resign."
At Annapolis on that morning, Washington delivered what he expected to be his last goodbye, in a speech written in part by Thomas Jefferson. As Wills describes it,
"His horse waiting at the door, to carry him to Mount Vernon by Christmas Eve...At that moment the ancient legend of Cincinnatus--the Roman called from his plow to rescue Rome, and returning to his plow when danger had passed--was resurrected as a fact of modern political life."
Wills relates a story of a conversation during the Revolutionary War between the British King George III and the artist Benjamin West, who 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."
I have practiced law for thirty-four years, including immigration law for a considerable part of that time. One of the absolutely most depressing things I ever heard about the state of our country's governance was at an immigration law conference where a senior attorney of the Senate Judiciary Committee (the Senate Committee responsible for immigration law legislation) said that every single member of his Committee--from the most conservative Republican to the most liberal Democrat--supported stapling a green card to every Ph.D awarded by an American university to a non-American citizen in math, science or engineering. But the majority of the Committee members did not want such a provision to pass other than as part of a comprehensive immigration bill because enacting it separately would mean that there would be less motivation thereafter to pass comprehensive immigration reform. The attorney implied that different Senators had constituents for whom other aspects of immigration reform were important, like greater border security or certain provisions desired by organized labor, and these constituents would be less likely to provide additional financial support to members of the Committee if they thought comprehensive immigration reform was less likely to be enacted because the provision on which everyone agreed had already been enacted.
How has the culture in Congress evolved so far away from Washington's values? How did we get to a place where things all our legislators agree would be good for America don't get enacted because of partisan politics or for reasons related to generating continuing political contributions? Our elected officials’ job is to move this nation forward, regardless of whether doing so means they are putting their own reelection at risk. We need more Washingtons in Washington.
The famous philosopher John Rawls has stated, "In constant pursuit of money to finance campaigns, the political system is simply unable to function. Its deliberative powers are paralyzed." This is true. And our political culture needs to evolve so that the politicians we admire most are the ones who, like George Washington, are willing to sacrifice personal power for the public good. Hopefully when some of them start doing so, they won't go quietly, but will rip as much rot out as they can as they go.