Friday, July 4, 2008

The Fourth of July

It may be no coincidence, and certainly is fitting, that I finished David McCullough's wonderful John Adams this evening, surrounded by fireworks all around me (it really was something, standing on my balcony in Royal Oak, seeing fireworks from all over metro-Detroit in all directions, some just visible over the tree-line, some heard but not seen, others seen but not heard, and some almost directly in front of me). As great as HBO's recent mini-series of the same name was (it was based on McCollough's biography and will undoubtedly and deservedly win numerous awards at this year's Emmy's) the 651-page (751 counting the indexes) book was even better. While McCullough seems to be as much of Adams' advocate as his biographer, it is hard not to come away from reading the book with the highest regard for our nation's second President. Adams is often overlooked in history (Washington, Jefferson, and Ben Franklin get most of the credit for the Revolution and the success of the early United States) and his one term as President may not have been remarkable (he saved the country from war with France but earned the praise of neither political party at the time while doing so) but after reading the book, it is clear that no man fought harder to convince his fellow colonists that revolution was necessary and that independence was essential. And his work in France, Britain, and Holland, securing peace and security (and in Holland, much needed financial support) for the new nation may have been the most important and least appreciated and remembered parts of the Revolutionary War.

It was remarkable to read about the founding generation, the letters between John and his wife Abigail (who could have been and would have been a great political leader herself had she been allowed to govern) and John and Thomas Jefferson, two of the brightest minds of their generation. It's incredible to think back and read about that time in history, where all of the greatest minds of the country gathered to form a new world order. And also to think about how different history would have been if e-mail, telephones, and Blackberries existed in the late 1700s. Much of time back then was spent waiting for word from across the ocean, and it could take weeks, if not usually month, to receive any word on how negotiations were progressing (or not) in matters of peace and war. And how much of history we would have lost had John and Abigail Adams spoken on the phone once a day instead of writing countless letters back and forth, which have provided us an first-row view of the most important period in our country's history.

Whenever I say I'm interested in politics, sometimes I get quizzical looks, and am asked why. After all, most think politicians to be corrupt, and only interested in boosting their own ego and their own political party, advanced not by interest in country, but personal ambition. A recent Rasmussen survey bears that out. Just 17-percent of the country "believe working for the government is more honorable than working in the private sector."

But there is a difference, one that is often lost, between politics and governance. Yes, I'm interested in politics. The sport, the human chess match, the back-and-forth, the intellectual puzzles and arguments and the thrill of election night. The science of Barack Obama spending the Fourth of July in Montana (despite the Democrats not winning the state in a generation) or John McCain kicking off an economic tour as we inch towards a global recession.

But, politics, to me, is a means to an end (though not an uninteresting or unenjoyable one). Governing is what's important. In the end, I'm interested in politics (and want to govern or help somebody else govern) because of the power and good that can be done when good men and women govern, and not in their own self-interest, but in the interest of their country. Jim Webb, for example, from the day he was elected to the United States Senate in 2006, has worked tirelessly to pass a 21st Century GI Bill. While soldiers returning from World War II were treated as heroes and given a first class college education in return for their service, those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been all but forgotten. Some said a new GI Bill was too expensive and others, including John McCain and President Bush, believed such a generous reward to our armed forces was too generous, and would hurt retention by encouraging soldiers to leave the Army to get their degrees. As if one tour in Iraq was not enough for a man or woman to deserve a college education. But despite the opposition, Webb succeeded last month in passing the resolution, and President Bush grudgingly signed it into law. Thanks to Webb, a new generation of Americans will receive an education which will pay us all dividends in the future.

The problem isn't that politics and governing isn't "honorable" as the Rasmussen poll suggests. Its that we have too few Jim Webb's in government. Just as the brightest minds of 1776 came together to not just declare independence and win a war many thought unwinniable, but to form a government, the form of which had never before been seen on such a large scale, and which has endured now for over 200-years, we need the brightest minds of this generation to come together to solve the problems we all now face. Otherwise, the government and the governing will be left in the hands of those whose decisions are shaped by self interest and greed, and who put party and politics above the needs of everyday Americans.

It's an obligation to one's country and one's fellow citizen that John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest of the Founding Generation uniquely understood. Governing is honorable. But only when honorable men and women are governing. And that's a lesson we all can take to heart on this Fourth of July.

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