Lessons From Washington
You don’t need to spend time on Twitter to realize that politics is not bringing out the best in us, to put it mildly. The Brett Kavanaugh confirmation ordeal seems to be some kind of breaking point. And yet, haven’t we had many of them over the past weeks, months and years — and decades? Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg expressed her dismay recently at the way these judicial hearings have gone, reminiscing about a time when bipartisanship was at least plausible. (Which is not to romanticize the past — it wasn’t perfect, but there is something there to recapture.)
The one upside to all of this is that while dishonor doesn’t belong exclusively to one party, neither does disgust and exhaustion. While I realize that a time-out is just about the last thing anyone has time for right now, it might be the only thing worth making time for. There really is more to life than politics and even than a Supreme Court nomination — and I want Roe v. Wade overturned as much as anyone.
A good prescription for a retreat to recover a little sense of dignity to our civic life might involve turning to our first president as a guide. Richard Brookhiser, one of the most compelling storytelling historians alive, and my colleague at National Review, first published Washington’s “Rules of Civility” in a small volume in 1997. The question Brookhiser asks in the subsequent 2003 edition could be asked again today: “Have the years of gross farce, tragedy and war made civility less important?” His answer then has still got to be true: “George Washington, I believe, would not think so.”
He went on to talk about Washington’s decency to Alexander Hamilton and his family, when Hamilton fell into public scandal involving blackmail and infidelity. How Washington treated Hamilton, Brookhiser writes, “was a masterpiece of courtesy and tact.”
As a teenage boy, Washington wrote, probably as a handwriting exercise, “The Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” based on a 16th-century text by French Jesuits. While some would assume that such an old foundation might seem a little dated for today’s society, consider the wisdom, consider the following rule: “Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.” Maybe we could extend that to people we interact with in social media, in commercial transactions and in and around Senate confirmation hearings.
Here are some others: “Let your countenance be pleasant but in serious matters somewhat grave.”
“Do not laugh too loud or too much at any public spectacle.”
Two other rules that should apply today: “ … (a)lways submit your judgment to others with modesty.” “Do not express joy before one sick in pain, for that contrary passion will aggravate his misery.”
Here’s one that seems made for our Twitter-driven news machine and the hot takes it entails: “Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.”
Here’s another timely one for any year or century — and one that cuts many ways, to the heart of the ongoing unveiling of scandal in my beloved Catholic Church: “Let your recreations be manful, not sinful.”
This one especially speaks to ages: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
You get the idea.
George Washington didn’t have Twitter, but the rancorously partisan social and political spheres he inhabited, along with the unstable international scene of his era, share many similarities with our current world. As Brookhiser writes, “We have our problems and distractions, but George Washington had his. If a great man took the trouble to behave well, so can we.”
So, how about that time-out? If the father of our country could do it, we ourselves owe him at least a decent try.
COPYRIGHT 2018 United Feature Syndicate