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Milbank: Ghosts of the Founders speak to us

First Published Feb 28 2014 01:26 pm • Last Updated Feb 28 2014 01:26 pm

The ghosts of the Founding Fathers spoke to us this week.

It was an accident of timing that John Dingell, the longest-serving lawmaker in U.S. history, announced his retirement on the same day the Senate engaged in its annual reading of George Washington’s farewell address. But surely it was more than coincidence that the two farewell speeches complemented each other as they did.

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Dingell’s remarks, delivered Monday at a luncheon in suburban Detroit, were the work of a master legislator but a prosaic orator. Washington’s words were written 218 years earlier by the nation’s founding hero and two of the greatest rhetoricians who ever lived, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

Dingell’s announcement commanded headlines because of his more than 58 years in the House -- spanning a quarter of the nation’s history -- and because of his apt description of how the Congress he loved has become "obnoxious." The reading of Washington’s speech on the Senate floor, continuing a Civil War tradition marking Washington’s birthday, went mostly unnoticed.

But Washington’s words echoed across the ages in the remarks by the dean of the House. The first president warned of the danger of faction and party undermining the republic. The departing lawmaker spoke of a political system that has come to resemble the one Washington feared.

Both parties in the current drama would benefit from setting aside their nuclear options -- super PACs, shutdown showdowns and "subhuman mongrel" talk -- long enough to reflect on how they are doing exactly what the founders warned against.

In 1796, as schoolchildren learn, Washington told posterity that "one of the expedients of party" is "to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection." There is, he wrote, a "fatal tendency" to replace the national will with "the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction."

Such factions, he went on, "are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government." Washington therefore warned against attempts to "impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown." Liberty is "little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand" factions.

"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge ... is itself a frightful despotism," Washington wrote. "The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection."

Sen. Angus King, the freshman independent from Maine, read Washington’s address from the front of the Senate chamber Monday, renewing a ritual performed by Henry Cabot Lodge, Arthur Vandenberg, Robert Taft, Hubert Humphrey, Barry Goldwater and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But the founders’ warnings sound eerily relevant now, as Republicans decry President Obama’s "lawlessness," Democrats complain that Republicans are disabling government, a tea party faction holds disproportionate power and artificial crises distract lawmakers from real ones.


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The 87-year-old Dingell, in his workmanlike way, gave voice to how, 150 years after a civil war, Washington’s admonition has again been ignored.

"Too many officeholders," he said, "have refused to carry out their duty to the country, to each other, and to all of us, past, present, and future." Asserting that the current Congress has passed only 57 bills into law, he blamed "a disregard of our country, our Congress, and our governmental system,"

"What unites us is far greater than what divides us," Dingell said. "No president should have to tell a Congress that if that august body cannot do its task he will do it by executive order. Congress means ‘a coming together.’ Look it up. It’s there in the dictionary. ... Compromise is an honorable word, as are cooperation, conciliation and coordination. Let us recognize that our Founding Fathers intended that those words would be the way the business of our country would be conducted."

Washington didn’t use the phrase "look it up." But he foresaw the obnoxiousness.



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