Sunday, June 21, 2009

Founding Father's Day

On this holiday when Americans remember and celebrate their fathers, I’m reminded of the gratitude we owe to the nation’s founders.

Watching the convulsions in Iran this past week, where a rigged election seems to have taken place, I’m especially grateful to the Father of our Country.

Though many urged him to become a king, George Washington voluntarily relinquished the presidency after two terms in office, handing over the executive office to his duly elected successor John Adams without tumult or strife, establishing a precedent for the orderly transfer of power in the U.S. that has endured to this day.

Accused of aristocratic pretensions, Washington revealed his true nobility not by amassing power, but in his willingness to give it up.

Whatever one’s opinion of George W. Bush, he got on a plane for Crawford, Texas, on Barack Obama’s Inauguration Day and flew into the sunset, the way he was supposed to—the way it’s happened with 43 presidents since Washington served. So conservatives were appropriately angry last week when CBS News tacitly compared Bush to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust denying, anti-Semitic bully who is the current president of Iran. Unlike the scene Tehran, there were no mass rallies, no riot police gassing protesters when George Bush lost the vote. Just a peaceful, democratic succession.

In 1951, the Twenty-Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution codified the two-term rule for the presidency. But before then, from Washington’s time up to Roosevelt’s extraordinary run in the White House, it was nothing but the power of precedent and George Washington’s towering example that prevented the nation’s leaders from grasping at lifetime tenure.

Iranians are naturally suspicious of the United States, which helped overthrow their popularly elected government back in the 50’s. Still, President Ahmadinejad might find a lesson in history here:

Graceful farewells are the signature of great leaders.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Very nice, Mr. Kowalski.

Graceful farewells are the signature of great leaders...

I hate to get psychological on leaders, but we might fairly say that if you have a somewhat "normal" psychology, private life is "normal," and the presidency is an extraordinary call to duty that an ordinary man answers, to paraphrase President Obama a bit.

We might excuse and even praise FDR for hanging onto the presidency as an island of stability in an unmatched time of crisis both foreign and domestic, but Cincinnatus was GWashington's hero, a man most comfortable---and happy---on his farm.

Politics is not a "normal" life. Indeed, it was no small part of his charm and the trust he was given that the patrician scion Dubya wanted the presidency less than the two men he defeated, the man who wore "JFK" on his cufflinks and the senator's son who was born and bred to the presidency.

Much like Dubya's father, who was the embodiment of the "Tory" tradition, that public service was just that, no more or less, service. He lost to Bill Clinton largely because of his distaste for campaigning and refusal to commit to it. George 41 Bush enjoyed being a former president far more than he enjoyed the presidency.

This isn't to diminish Bill Clinton, who was a very good president. Although I didn't vote for him either time, neither was I crestfallen when he won. Both times.

To return to the Founding era, except for the occasional and rare Cincinnatus---whose decision was personal, like GW's---America is credited with the first peaceful transfer of power, after Jefferson beat Adams in a particularly ugly election.

Even though universal sufferage was over a century away, in 1800 America tested, and with Jefferson's inauguration in 1801 established in fact what had only been a theory up to that point in human history---that sovereignty rests with the people.


And as a personal note, I have a theory and analysis that the American people has always elected the best man for the job. Although at this point I hope President Obama serves only one term, I won't insist that the right man didn't win in 2008. And neither will I say that Anybody But Obama will be the best candidate in 2012. Anybody But Dubya was not the best candidate in 2004.

As for the great tradition of ex-presidents going back to obscurity and the farm, I hope 43 goes no further than he has, expressing his principles but largely silent on policy. 42 has done reasonably well, as has 41; 40 was entirely GWashington-like.

39, well... Let's say it might have been better if he'd turned his attention back to his peanut crops.