He liked to say that he was in morals, not politics. From this the logical deduction was that people who opposed him, numerous though they undoubtedly were, must be willfully wrong. . . .
Yet angry words were about the only kind anyone cared about to use these days. Men seemed tired of the reasoning process. Instead of trying to convert one’s opponents it was simpler just to denounce them, no matter what unmeasured denunciation might lead to. . . . Men saw what they feared and hated, concentrated on its wide empty plains, and as they stared they were losing the ability to see virtue in compromise and conciliation. The man on the other side, whatever one’s vantage point, was beginning to look ominously alien. . . .
A philippic, as he had promised. No single vote had been changed by it; the Senate would decide, at last, precisely as it would have done if he had kept quiet. But he had not been trying to persuade. No one was, these days; a political leader addressed his own following, not the opposition. Summer had been trying to inflame, to arouse, to confirm the hatreds and angers that already existed. In the North there were men who from his words would draw a new enmity toward the South; in the South there were men who would see in this speaker and what he had said a final embodiment of the compelling reasons why it was good to think seriously about secession.
These excerpts are from Catton’s book, This Hallowed Ground. Though he is describing something that happened 165 years ago, it feels eerily contemporary.
In the opening pages of his book, a section aptly subtitled “Sowing the Wind,” Catton is describing the mood of the U.S. Senate (and the nation really) as Senator Charles Sumner prepared and delivered a speech on the Senate floor denouncing slavery and calling for the territory of Kansas to be admitted to the Union as a free state.
A few days later, on the Senate floor, as a result of that speech, Sumner was attacked and almost beat to death with a cane by Preston Brooks, a senator from South Carolina, and a strong advocate for slavery and states’ rights.
It was May, 1856. The nation was just 5 years from the opening shots of a bloody civil war.
All I had known about Senator John Warner I’d heard from my mom and dad before I came to Capitol Hill to work. I knew the Senator had been a Secretary of the Navy. I knew he’d been married to Elizabeth Taylor. I also knew my parents had a very high regard for him as our Senator from Virginia and, of course, because he was a Republican….back when, I think it’s fair to add, being Republican was something somewhat different than it is today.
All of these things went through my mind when the Senator approached me one evening in the Senate subway of the U.S. Capitol Building. This would have been around 1994, and it was my first personal encounter with Senator Warner. I was standing watch (it was my job as a U.S. Capitol Police Officer) over the senator and a small crowd of visitors on the Senate subway platform. They were waiting for a subway car. There was a reserved subway car for senators and an area marked specifically for senators to stand while waiting for the subway car. But on this day the crowd apparently didn’t see the sign and stood in the area reserved for senators waiting to board.
I started to walk over to kindly ask the visitors to move to the visitor boarding area, but before I could say something Senator Warner began speaking to the crowd. They were, as the senator happily discovered, Virginians. As the senator spoke to them he observed me off to the side waiting for him to finish. He gave me a hand motion and a nod that signaled “I got this.” The crowd was excited. They hadn’t expected to see their senator in person during their visit to the Capitol. The crowd laughed and asked questions and then took pictures with the Senator. The subway car pulled in just as the pictures were done and the Senator guided the crowd onto the reserved car. He didn’t get on, however. He said something that made the crowd laugh and then waved as the doors to the car closed and the car pulled away.
That left just the Senator and I standing there on the platform. The Senator turned and with his hands grasped behind his back, and a look of interest on his face, walked over to me and asked where I was from. I told him I was a Virginian and that my wife and I had recently purchased a home in Centreville, VA. The senator smiled and said: “Nice area. I own a farm not too far from you called Atoka Farm. Beautiful country out there.” I agreed with him about the beauty of that area and added jokingly, “If we get out that way again maybe we’ll stop in and see you.” The senator smiled and said, “Well I don’t get out to the farm as much as I use to, but if you do get out that way again please do stop in and take a look at the farm. Check on it for me. If anyone asks you tell them I sent you.” About that time the next subway car arrived and he left.
And so sometime over the next few months my wife and I made our way west again to explore more of Fauquier County, Virginia. We first pulled into what we thought was Atoka Farm. A lot of the farms in that area of Virginia are massive; they’re hundreds, in some cases thousands, of acres in size. And they don’t look like what most of us would think of when we think of a farm either. It’s more accurate to describe them as “estates.” Atoka Farm, as I recall, was about 400 acres in size at the time.
As my wife and I drove down the main entry road we were suddenly startled by a low flying plane on our immediate right. He was on final approach to a runway. I knew the Senator was a wealthy man, but the idea of him having a runway and airplane didn’t register. I stopped the car looked around. We were near a set of smaller homes on the estate and I happened to notice a small sign. We were on the wrong farm. We had pulled into Paul Mellon’s massive estate, Oak Spring Farm.
So eventually we found Atoka Farm and we drove around the grounds and took some pictures. The gardens and the scenery were beautiful. The barn, we found out, didn’t have farming equipment and other such stuff in it, but a swimming pool. One of the most noticeable features of this part of the country are all the low stones walls that crisscross the countryside. They’re everywhere and most estates are ringed by them and many of the roads are lined on both sides with them.
Months later, back on Capitol Hill, Senator Warner approached me near the Senate Chamber. I don’t recall the initial part of our conservation but I told him I’d visited his farm and I hoped he’d gotten out there to enjoy the beautiful countryside. “Oh I sold the farm” the Senator said. Surprised I said, “That was a beautiful place. What made you want to sell it?” The Senator paused for a moment and said, “Well, my daddy always told me you should never keep anything that eats while you sleep.”
Senator John Warner had an old world charm about him. He was a gentleman, an institutionalist, and a compromiser. He wanted to get things done and solve problems. He served this nation with integrity, honor, and decency.
When Thomas Ricks woke up that gloomy Wednesday November morning, after the Presidential election of 2016, he began asking himself some searching questions about this country. “What just happen? What kind of nation do we now have?” “Is this what was designed or intended by the nation’s founders?” And probably, How do I move to Canada!? Like the majority of Americans, I had similar thoughts that same morning.
Ricks dealt with this terrible turn in America politics by writing a book. He decided the best way to deal with his angst was to try and understand the American experiment at its founding. What was it all about? What were the principles this nation was founded upon? And so in First Principles Ricks examines some of those core principles around which this nation was originally founded upon.
This is the second book of Ricks’s I’ve read. He’s a good writer and if you like history and politics I highly recommend you pick up a copy of First Principles.
For me, I could summarize the main point of the book as follows: The belief that the “public virtue” of the citizenry and public officials could be counted on to sustain our Republic was dismissed as a complete fantasy by our founders. History and personal experience demonstrated this over and over. People are hopelessly self interested and so to avoid the concentration of federal power—and its abuse—it was purposely divided up among the three branches of government. These branches—executive, legislative, and judiciary–were supposed to function as separate institutions that put a check on the power of other two. The founders feared the rise of people exactly like Donald Trump, and so they purposely built separate institutions to ensure characters like Donald Trump were checked by the power of other institutions.
Some people feel our institutions worked as they were suppose to during Trump’s 4 year term, but I’m not so convinced. We survived in my view…for now. There is a growing authoritarianism on the political right in this country that resembles the authoritarian movements of early 20th century Europe. And just like many Europeans then, many Americans now, don’t seem to realize what’s happening right in front of them and how quickly we could potentially lose our democracy and our way of life.
This was my favorite ad during this past Sunday’s Super Bowl game. Not a hard call.
A marketing rep for Jeep said, “It’s a prayer. We wanted it to be the most spiritual commercial in the history of Super Bowls.” And that’s exactly how I took it, as a prayer for America.
It’s no secret the middle has been a hard place to get to lately. Between red and blue, between servant and citizen, between our freedom and our fear. Now fear has never been the best of who we are. And as for freedom, it’s not the property of just the fortunate few. It belongs to us all. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, it’s what connects us, and we need that connection. We need the Middle. We just have to remember the very soil we stand on is common ground. So we can get there. We can make it to the mountain top, through the desert. And we will cross this divide. Our light has always found its way through the darkness. And there is hope on the road up ahead.
Beautifully done by Springsteen.
I like how Springsteen refers to the Middle as a “place.” The Middle doesn’t have a unified political view. People who see themselves in the Middle don’t share all the same views. The Middle is mostly made up of those who lean one way or the other but aren’t extremists.
What makes us part of the Middle isn’t an agreement on all the issues, it’s a simple willingness to move toward that place where we stand together on common ground.
Above is a picture of President John F. Kennedy walking his dog at his home near Middleburg, Virginia, in the early 1960s. The picture reminded me of a couple of things. First, that JFK epitomized style and grace. Watch some of his speeches, like his “Peace Speech” at American University, or read his pulitzer prize winning book, Profiles and Courage. Watch some of his press conferences. What you’ll see and read are a man of elevated intellect, artfulness, and civic virtue.
Secondly, while JFK had his personal vices and sins, as all flesh and blood men do, I believe it’s wiser to judge our public leaders more by their public persona than by their personal lives. I’m thinking of the importance of civic virtue. I think the important question is: What example does a public leader publicly model in both speech and action? Are they careful with their words? Words matter and they know it. In other words, are they trying to be honest and responsible in what they say? Do they show good will toward their political adversaries? The need to find common ground and compromise, to build political capital in a Democratic-Republic, is critical. Do they exhibit humility? Is their sense of pride and self-importance in check? Is the public leader just in action and see themselves always under the law? As the Roman lawyer Ulpian wrote, “Justice is a steady and enduring will to render to everyone his right.” Do they demonstrate wisdom? Do they recognize the limits of what they know and yet be able to discern the inner quality and relationship of things and make a good judgement? Are they courageous? Kennedy, already wounded himself, risked his life in WWII to save other men. For a public leader moral courage may be shown in taking a stand that’s contrary to his own party’s public position (a “profile in courage”) because the leader believes (and can argue intelligently) why his position serves the larger interests of his community or nation. Does the leader exhibit self-control? Are they governed by their fears, desires, and passions, and show it openly (let it slip out) or are they a man or woman who tries to govern themselves?
As a President and public leader Kennedy demonstrated all of these civic virtues. Many Presidents have embodied these civic virtues. Another good Presidential example would be President Ronald Reagan. He too was a man who demonstrated many of the civic virtues I discussed above. Civic virtue is the life blood of our Republic because it’s about the common good. A good public leader (or citizen) feels the weight of his or her office (his or her citizenship), the judgment of history, and the obligation to bring order, unity, purpose, and inspiration to the nation that he or she leads (is a citizen of) for the short period of time they hold office (or live). The hope of freedom and democracy is that our democratically elected leaders (and each of us as citizens) will recognize that the office they hold (our citizenship) is much bigger than any one person or any one generation.