Morning Jay: A Moment in Search of a Man
12:00 AM, Dec 14, 2011 • By JAY COST
One of the classic tropes of romantic movies is meeting atop the Empire State Building or some other famous landmark. That, of course, is what is supposed to happen in An Affair to Remember, when Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr planned to meet there six months after a whirlwind romance. The concept has been used (and parodied!) time and again ever since.
American history has had its fair share of such moments, I suppose. In 1789, the country was falling to pieces; she patiently waited atop the metaphorical Empire State Building, and out of the elevator comes . . . George Washington! Ditto 1860, when Abraham Lincoln won less than 40 percent of the vote but turned out to be the perfect leader for the era.
Irony of ironies, the Founders warned us not to depend on such a “great man" theory of politics. Here’s James Madison in Federalist #10:
Truth be told, I’ve never really bought this theory. The argument is about as cogent as it gets, but it is just unpersuasive coming from the single greatest American political philosopher. If ever there was a great man of American politics, it was James Madison. And if ever there were a great group of men, it was the Founders. Indeed, the Federalist Papers were written by Hamilton, Jay, and Madison, each of whom was indispensible to the establishment of the Republic.
So, I’m more than a little frustrated with this year’s crop of presidential candidates. It’s not as bad as, say, 1856, when the country was desperately seeking somebody to find some common ground between North and South, and out of the elevator on the 102nd floor came James Buchanan. What a letdown!
Still, is it that unreasonable to expect more than Gingrich and Romney? I find both of them inadequate for the monumental challenges facing this country. For starters, both have been rejected by the party at points in the past – Gingrich by the House Republicans in 1998 and Romney by the whole GOP electorate in 2008 – so why, now that times are even tougher, should we turn to them? Beyond that, our government needs widespread reforms; old ways of doing business must be undone, and that requires presidential leadership of the highest caliber, and I doubt that either can deliver. In different ways, they’re too attached to the old ways, and I just doubt that the country will follow their lead.
That brings me back to the Founders, in particular George Washington. Here’s a scan of the last page of the Constitution. At the very bottom, you’ll see the signatures of the members of the Convention who endorsed the document. And whose name is at the top? George Washington.
Easy to overlook these days, but this was such a powerful political statement. Today we revere the Constitution, but many people back then were afraid of such a powerful federal government, and indeed the ratification effort almost failed in New York and Virginia, which surely would have doomed the whole process. That’s why Washington’s proud endorsement was so very important. People trusted him, and rightly so, meaning that his signature lent credibility to this new form of government.
By April 1789, George Washington had certainly done his duty for the United States of America. He fought back the threat from European powers not once, but twice during his career (first in the French and Indian War then in the Revolution), and had been integral in establishing this new form of government. Now in his mid 50s, which was relatively old by the standards of the day, he could have retired to Mount Vernon for the rest of his life and nobody would have thought less of him for it.