Of Jefferson, Lincoln, and the Folks There Now; Lessons from a Week in D.C.

From the Marchives: I originally posted this six years ago, and while a lot has changed, so much hasn’t.  Eldest son Willi is now heading into his senior year in college as a political science major, youngest son Sam has just graduated from high school.  The current political shenanigans  in D.C….? 

Still a solid postscript to the Fourth of July.

Mark
07/05/17

*   *   *   *   *

My wife, two sons and I recently spent a week in our nation’s capital – a first time experience for all of us. When the opportunity presented itself for me to participate in a teachers conference in D.C., we decided to make a family vacation out of the trip.  As I had three-and-a-half days of conference to attend, we tacked on an extra day to the trip so I could see some of the sights.

Sons Will and Sam, ages 15 and 12, respectively, are both history and military buffs, avid viewers of the History Channel, CNN, the Daily Show and Colbert Report. They possess a fairly sophisticated understanding of American government, how it works and how it is supposed to work, and were enthusiastic participants from the get go.

It was our best family vacation ever.

While I was conferencing, Amy and the boys did D.C. They made it into the galleries of both the Senate and House of Representatives, even witnessing a vote on the House floor. High school sophomore-to-be Will aspires to a career in public service and was fascinated enough with the processes of the House to spend more than an hour watching routine procedural matters while Amy and Sam toured other parts of the building and had a Coke to kill time before a late afternoon roll-call vote.

It was, Will reported later that night back in our hotel room, an ‘interesting but drawn out’ exercise in hearing names called and people saying ‘Aye’ or ‘Nay.’ A day later, after having witnessed more lively debate in the Senate, he declared his intention to work there someday as “That’s where things actually seemed to get accomplished.”

His enthusiasm each night in relating his travels around Washington was palpable and infectious.

While my family was touring the town, I was getting an education myself – aside from the seminars and plenary sessions. The hotel complex our conference was held at was huge, and with a conference of some 2,000 attendees, things were very spread out. Every place you went in the hotel complex were large, flat screen televisions, most of them tuned to CNN. Bouncing from seminar to seminar, meeting room to ballroom, I was covering a lot of ground, but also taking the time to watch the shenanigans of the various players in the whole ‘raise the debt ceiling’ debate.

All in all, I was not impressed.

Oddly, those big-screen images were so much different than seeing the same stuff in my living room in New Orleans. Knowing that my family was hanging out on Capitol Hill, understanding all that was unfolding just a short subway ride away was an unusual experience in perspective. Even the potential of seeing some of the players in the drama/soap opera on the street was an option, and at least one lesser-known congressman made an appearance at our conference, speaking to a delegation of teachers from his home state.

Sidebar one: I snuck into the back of the room during his talk, and was more impressed with him than any of the ‘leaders’ popping up like a ‘Whack-a-Mole’ game at every flat-screen turn in the Marriot.

But I was not in Washington to fret about the nation’s congressional leadership or lack thereof; I was there to be part of a presentation, then pick up some teaching CLUs. My ‘teachable moments’ (as the best ones usually are) were coming from more than just the seminars.

Part of our family trip ‘deal’ was Amy and the boys holding off on some of the things I wanted to see, so we could experience them together as a family. My D.C. ‘wish list’ was headed by Arlington National Cemetery, and the presidential and war memorials: the Lincoln, Jefferson and F.D.R. monuments as well as those devoted to those who served in Vietnam, World War II and Korea, and the White House, if possible. While Amy, Willi, and Sam took in the Washington Monument and the back of the White House, they held off on the good stuff and I got my wish list.

Sidebar number two: I had gotten the idea that I wanted my first experience with the Lincoln Memorial to be at night, and was not disappointed in the encounter. I highly recommend the approach; it was amazing all lit up, especially for a first-timer. Still pretty impressive in daylight, but at night…

As with most things of this nature, pictures do not do any of it justice. Seeing it in person was incredibly moving. Looking at Lincoln sitting there in his chair, pensively looking out over Washington, towards the Washington Monument and the Capitol was impressive, but I was moved as much by the interior of the chamber, which features Lincoln’s words engraved in the marble.

Reading the words of the man in a book or on a computer screen is nothing at all like seeing them written high on a wall of smooth, Colorado marble.

Nothing at all.

Chiseled on the wall to Lincoln’s right is his Gettysburg Address, while the wall to his left features his second inaugural address, each given to the nation in the midst of civil war. Both messages are profound in their eloquence and simplicity, and I left there with a renewed sense of pride and hope.

A feeling that was relatively short lived.

On the evening we returned to our hotel from visiting the Lincoln Memorial, I walked into the lobby while Senators Mc Connell and Reid were blathering about some aspect of the debt ceiling discussion, with each in his own way trying in vain to sound senatorial.

‘Trying’ is the operative word.

After having just reread the Gettysburg Address, etched in marble soaring nearly fifty feet high, I was now confronted with the petulant children, grade-school playground-level discourse of our two key Senate ‘leaders’ whining about how nobody on the ‘other side’ wants to compromise or even acknowledge an opposing view.

The juxtaposition was jarring.

After having experienced a 272-word masterpiece of a message concerning sacrifices made for the sake of the greater good I was now stuck hearing our current Senate ‘leaders’ spouting the political equivalent of “There once was a girl from Nantucket…”

We can do so much better. I had just seen it.

No matter what you might hear from your nightly sound bites on CNN or FOX and your Sunday morning news shows, keep in mind that Washington (or our country) is not a place built on a single ideology. Ideology seeks to conform everyone to a specific and very narrow set of ideas; aside from the broad concepts of liberty and freedom, this country has built itself from the ground up with a mixture of individuality and shared purpose – not a rigidly adhered to set of ideas from one individual or group.

We have most always been able to find common ground.

Washington, D.C. is a city constructed upon high ideals, grand ideas and sweeping visions. It was founded by men who shared much in their ways of thinking about how to build a nation and nurture democracy, but they also had vast differences and knew the art and value in compromise for the greater good.

It is really the only reason we are here as a nation.

Keep in mind it is not just the monuments themselves, or the men they celebrate but what they all mean to others; Marion Anderson sang and Martin Luther King, Jr. made his ‘I have a Dream’ speech from steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The reflecting pool between the Washington and Lincoln memorials has been the site of many dramatic protests and powerful moments.

Such was my time with Mr. Lincoln.

The woman who had graciously offered me the opportunity to attend the conference and trip spends a lot of time in D.C.; she told me before we left New Orleans, that of all of the monuments to see, the Jefferson Memorial was her favorite, and that she sometimes just goes there to sit and reflect.

I immediately grasped why.

Jefferson holds a special fascination for a lot of people, and it his memorial was as high on Will’s list as it was on mine. As with Lincoln, the visuals of the monument are stunning and pictures do not do any of them justice; as with my visit to Lincoln, the words of Jefferson inscribed on the walls come powerfully to life. I came to Washington as an educator, and encountered one of the greatest educators in American history.

Now if only our current leaders had absorbed some of Jefferson’s lessons – or even read them.

The interior of the Jefferson Memorial features five of his most memorable quotations out of literally hundreds of choices they had. One is on the dome of the rotunda above his statue, four others are carved on huge, marble panels again soaring skyward between the giant pillars supporting the dome. In all five cases, Jefferson states his point, concisely and eloquently, without hyperbole or rant.

Of today’s congressional leaders, I defy you to find any five compelling comments any of them has made or any ideas put forth that are worth commemorating.

Jefferson would probably not fare well in today’s sound-bite climate. There is no vitriol, no sneering put-downs of his opponents. He spoke in clear thought, not rehearsed rhetoric. Ideas and ideals, not ideology. His words and ideas were and are righteous, but never self-righteous.

That is a concept and skill our current leaders in Washington sorely need to learn, as their whiny finger pointing and pandering to their respective ‘political bases’ is a never ending video loop of self-indulgence and self-righteousness.

There is very little being said by our leaders in Washington the week I was there that I could ever imagine being carved in stone. Most of it was barely worthy of highway overpass graffiti.

Our congressional ‘leadership’ seems absent any sense of their responsibilities, and are sorely lacking gravitas beyond the sycophants that stand around them when the face they media.  Boehner, Mc Connell, Pelosi and Reid, et al are the anti-Jefferson, the anti-Lincoln, at a time in history when we need anything but, which is sadly ironic.

All around them, a five-minute limo ride away on any given day in Washington, are etched in marble and on bold, public display, not just words, but the wisdom and spirit that helped found this country, helped maintain it. The teacher in me thinks they all need to go on some field trips.

We can do so much better than what we have. I have seen the proof; it’s chiseled in stone.

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Still politicking me off

I originally wrote this back in 2010 – not a presidential year, but still rather volatile, politically. Stumbling across it again now, I wondered if my gripes then differed from today.  I’ll let you be the judge, though I have added a few more contemporary comments, in bold italics.

October, 2010

I recently had a firsthand experience that outlines just how acutely American politics has gotten to the vapid, too-partisan-for-words, what-about-us-in-the-mainstream, point that it is now at.

The other day, my phone rang; picking it up, I was not surprised to hear a chirpy-sounding pollster/political operative voice on the other end asking me if I “had a moment” to answer a quick question. Before I could get the “Sure” out of my mouth, the young woman (no personal identification, party phonebankor PAC affiliation given) just jumped right in:

“Good afternoon, sir, I am wondering if you plan to vote on November second?”
“Indeed I do.”
“Great! Could you please tell me then, do you plan on voting for the Republicans, the Democrats or are you undecided?”
“Well, I plan on voting for some Democrats and some Republicans.”

Pause.

“Soooo….then I should mark you down as ‘undecided’?” she asked as a statement, in a puzzled tone.
“Not at all! I know exactly who I am voting for.”
“O.K….but will you be voting for the Republicans or the Democrats?”
“Some of each, actually. I haven’t voted a straight party line ticket for many years.”

Pause.

“So, I should mark you down as ‘undecided’.” She was quite certain this was the correct answer.
“No,I am definitely not ‘undecided.’ I will be voting for some Democrats, some Republicans.”
“O.K. – so you’re not undecided.” Her tone reverted to bewilderment, but at least it was a statement, not a tentative question.
“Not at all. I know exactly who I’ll be voting for. . . I can tell you I will not be phonebank2voting for the Republican running for the senate.”

“O.K….well…” it seemed as though she was checking her notes seeking the proper response to my, uhhh…independent streak, “…you’re not undecided.”
“No, I ‘m definitely not undecided.”
Short pause.
“Thanks a lot, sir. Have a nice day.”
“Thanks. You too.”

Click.

Again, I don’t know what organization, party, PAC, coffee klatch or bridge club she was representing – but there were a few things about the call that concerned me.

The first is that my answer should not have been seen as such an oddity.

Surely I am not the only person in the country who will vote for – GASP! – the best candidate (as I see it) for the job, regardless of party affiliation – or am I truly the last of a dying breed? I wouldn’t think my answer should have led to such consternation; flustered the woman completely, I did.  2016: I believe I may indeed be the last of a dying breed, and should photo-5-copyprobably be protected in a game preserve somewhere to prevent my extinction.

Secondly, given the state of today’s political landscape, why was I only given the ol’ Repubs/Dems option – even in Louisiana? It’s 2010, for crying out loud – no Tea Party, Independence Party, Tupperware party – nothing? (Not that any of those entities have much to offer me– except I could use some new storage bowls.) It’s just the principle of the thing: only offering bunting2me ‘will you be voting for the Republicans or the Democrats’?  makes no sense, though I especially liked her old-school ‘THE Republicans’ and ‘THE Democrats’. then again, maybe having principles is too old school for the modern electorate.  In 2016, here in the deeply red state of Louisiana, the Republicans running do not identify as such in their advertising; they simply geaux (sic) with “x-and-o, CONSERVATIVE for (whatever office)”.  I have yet to see a commercial here identifying a candidate as ‘Republican.’

All in all, it was a very strange call to be getting but certainly not the most egregious political intrusion of the season. Some other election year pet peeves? Let me count the ways we can make this a much more comfortable process.

1. Keep yours/ours/their religion out of politics – and vice versa. Yeah, we may belong to the same faith – heck, even the same denomination – but just because we share a pew on Sunday morning doesn’t mean I share your political stance. And it really ticks me off when you start talking politics over coffee, and you assume we all agree – because we go to the same church – and you continually use the pronoun ‘we’ in your pronouncements. Let me tell ya, guys…you seem like basically decent fellows, but there is usually no pogo3‘me’ in your ‘we’.  Six years later, I am attending two different churches regularly, and this is not an issue at ether. Though at one, people do not discuss politics at all, and the other is a more social justice oriented congregation, where differences are discussed and celebrated.  A much more comfortable scenario in either case.

2. Along the same lines is this sidebar to candidates; stop telling me you’re a ‘family values’ kind of guy. Who’s family? Aadams? Manson? Swiss Robinsons? It’s especially galling when you talk of ‘family values’ and your background includes dalliances with hookers, DUI’s or past domestic disturbance calls to your home. I’m all for redemption, but don’t play the family-values‘family values’ card – stick with issues, give me your solutions to problems – ya know, the stuff I really want my politicians to do. This is more true than ever – at least in regards to the phrase ‘family values’ which now has the linguistic value of a three-dollar-bill.

3. Quit demonizing everyone you disagree with absurd labels: Socialist! Darwinist! Illegal immigrant supporter! Racist! Anti-business! Muslim! Not a real (fill-in-the-blank)! I know, I know – shock value gets attention…when you are in the sixth grade. Grow the hell up, people. Yes, please do – as individuals, and as a culture. 

4. Oh yeah, while you’re at it, please drop the use of the word ‘pro’ from your electioneering. Pro-life! Pro-choice! Pro-guns! Pro-business! Pro-environment! Pro being pro-whatever-you-want-me-to-be! Per the fine folks at Merriam-Webster:

  • pro (noun) \ˈprō\  1.an argument or evidence in affirmation  2: the affirmative side or one holding it.

‘Affirmative side or one holding it’. By definition, you are implying that anyone who is not ‘pro’ like you is automatically ‘anti’ whatever you are ‘pro’ of. That is absolute nonsense. On any issue you want to be ‘pro’ on, there is pros-and-consplenty of room on the spectrum of logical, rational thought before you get to ‘anti’. (see number 1, above)  Does this one still hold true?  Absolutely. ‘Pro’ may be the single most misused word in American political discourse. 

You get the idea. The whole black/white concept of American politics is ridiculous, dangerous and stupid – and the results are pretty obvious. Our national debate should be taking place in the gray areas where most of us live – somewhere between the I’m- pro-this-and-you’re-anti-that-so-go-to-hell extremists.

As Walt Kelley’s  famous comic strip character Pogo famously observed, way pogo1back in the 1950’s, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

In 2016 it remains true: we have, they are – and therein lies our greatest weakness as an American electorate:  we, they.  Very little ‘us’.

As in all of us.  As in U.S.  As in ‘We are all Americans’.

We need to start acting like it

Make it stop….please make it stop. (Or; Whew! No more political ads. For NOW.)

The following is addressed to everyone I know, regardless where they perch on the political spectrum.

I did my part today – I voted. Now I can (hopefully) not have to listen to anymore political ads and can instead set my sights on being annoyed by holiday advertising. Those ads are certainly as ubiquitous and insipid as anything political, but generally without the vitriol.

Now that the election is over (yeah, I know, the post-mortems have just begun) I have some free advice I hope everyone who reads this post will take to heart. In fact, please pass this along to anyone you think I might be referring to. (Example: If anyone you know has foam around their mouth when discussing President Obama, Sarah Palin, the Left or the Tea Party – send this their way…pronto!)

Now then…

To my friends on the right: Please lay off e-mailing me political cartoons and exclamation-point laced tirades about the ‘evils’ of the left. This will now include anything involving and/or referring to ‘destroying Liberalism.’ You cannot destroy an idea…Lord only know why you would seek to, simply because you don’t agree with it. Trust me; Liberals and their ideals/ideas aren’t hurting you one bit. Even the really bad ideas and ideals you see as sinister.

To my friends on the left: Please lay off e-mailing me political cartoons and exclamation-point laced tirades about the ‘evils’ of the right, the anti-American, racist bent of the Tea Party, George Bush. He is history; move on. Same goes for you; Conservatives and their ideals/ideas aren’t hurting you one bit. Even the really bad ideas and ideals you see as sinister.

To everyone: No, I do not believe that President Obama is a raving Socialist, Muslim, born in another country, ‘subversive supporter of Muslim terrorists’ to name just a few epithets that I have seen. The fact that many of YOU do scares me a bit, but have your little delusions – just keep most of them to yourselves. I also don’t believe that the Tea Party is a racist, ‘anarchist front’. The fact that many of YOU do feel this way also scares me a bit, but I find you, too, generally harmless. Please keep your fantasy lives just that. Now the Tea Party may be a bit heavy on people who have too much time to spend on Betsy Ross and Colonial Minuteman costumes, but that’s another story.

And all of you, quit throwing terms like Socialist, Fascist, elitist and banker around willy-nilly. You sound like you’re trapped in some time-warp junior high history class stuck on unit covering the 1930’s.

The reason I can say ‘don’t worry’ about the Tea Party, Socialists, Obama, Palin, et al is quite simple; our Republic has survived far more serious threats than anything – ANYTHING – I see on the horizon today – regardless of who is spewing what kind of hate .

And yes, that includes the threat of terrorism. If you think the garbage everyone is yelling from both sides of the political spectrum is unique, or heralds some end-times, think again. Here is just a partial list, in no particular order of importance or chronology, of things our country has endured and yes – survived – just in my lifetime – that have fueled generation upon generation of good old American Chciken-Litttles:

McCarthyism
The Cold War
Cuban Missile Crisis
Assassinations: JFK, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, MLK, RFK
LBJ’s Great Society
Civil Rights Act of 1964
Kent State
Watergate (including the Saturday Night Massacre)
Gas crisis of the 1970’s
Jerry Ford’s WIN
Jimmy Carter’s ‘malaise’ admonishment
Iran Hostages crisis (and Iran Contra scandal)
Myriad Supreme Court decisions
9/11 attacks
Patriot Act

And yet, the Republic endures!

If you think ‘Obama Care’ or the Tea Party, or Palin, O’Donnell, Obama, Pelosi or whomever is to American Society as the Plague was to Medieval Europe – go hang out at a Renaissance Fair somewhere and let us normal, rational people in the middle try –TRY – to get something positive accomplished.

Like having a life.

So there. It’s over, we can now go about the business of actually prodding the people we elected to actually do something instead of just spewing overwrought rhetoric. You did actually vote for people with ideas, right? You didn’t just vote for someone because, oh, I don’t know…they said they were
Conservative!
Liberal!
Prolife!
Prochoice!
For stuff!
Against stuff!
Prowar!
Antiwar!
Need more war!

Oh yeah…one more thing. Being against a specific someone/something/some group/some idea is no way, shape or form ‘Un-American.’ If you want to spend me any of that crap via e-mail, Facebook, whatever, expect it to come back at you, because to me the labeling of one’s political opponents or opposing ideas as ‘Un-American’ is about as counter patriotic as it gets.

Thanks, and have a happy non-election season.

Politico, shmalitico

I recently had a firsthand experience that outlines just how American politics has gotten to the vapid, too-partisan-for-words, what-about-us-in-the-mainstream, point that it is now at. The other day, my phone rang; picking it up, I was not surprised to hear a chirpy-sounding pollster/political operative voice on the other end asking me if I “had a moment” to answer a quick question. Before I could get the “Sure” out of my mouth, the young woman (no personal identification, party or PAC affiliation given) just jumped right in:
“Good afternoon, sir, I am wondering if you plan to vote on November second?”
“Indeed I do.”
“Great! Could you please tell me then, do you plan on voting for the Republicans, the Democrats or are you undecided?”
“Well, I plan on voting for some Democrats and some Republicans.”

Pause.

“Soooo….then I should mark you down as ‘undecided’?” she asked as a statement, in a puzzled tone.
“Not at all! I know exactly who I am voting for.”
“O.K….but will you be voting for the Republicans or the Democrats?”
“Some of each, actually. I haven’t voted a straight party line ticket for many years.”

Pause.

“So, I should mark you down as ‘undecided’.” She was quite certain this was the correct answer.
“No,I am definitely not ‘undecided.’ I will be voting for some Democrats, some Republicans.”
“O.K. – so you’re not undecided.” Her tone reverted to bewilderment, but at least it was a statement, not a tentative question.
“Not at all. I know exactly who I’ll be voting for. . . I can tell you I will not be voting for the Republican running for the senate.”

“O.K….well…” it seemed as though she was checking her notes seeking the proper response to my, uhhh…independent streak, “…you’re not undecided. “
“No, I ‘m definitely not undecided.”
“Thanks a lot, sir. Have a nice day.”
“Thanks. You too.”

Click.

Again, I don’t know what organization, party, PAC, coffee klatch she was representing – but there were a few things about the call besides political callers not identifying themselves that concerned me.

The first is that my answer should not have been seen as such an oddity. Surely I am not the only person in the country who will vote for – GASP! – the best candidate (as I see it) for the job, regardless of party affiliation – or am I truly the last of a dying breed? I wouldn’t think my answer should have led to such consternation; flustered the woman, I did.

Secondly, given the state of today’s political landscape, why was I only given the ol’ Repubs/Dems option? It’s 2010, for crying out loud – no Tea Party, Independence Party, Tupperware party – nothing? (Not that any of those entities have much to offer me– except I could use some new storage bowls.) It’s just the principle of the thing: only offering me ‘will you be voting for the Republicans or the Democrats’?  makes no sense, though I especially liked her old-school ‘THE Republicans’ and ‘THE Democrats’. then again, maybe having principles is too old school for the modern electorate.

All in all, a very strange call to be getting but certainly not the most egregious political intrusion of the season. Some other election year pet peeves? Let me count the ways…

1. Keep yours/ours/their religion out of politics – and vice versa. Yeah, we may belong to the same faith – heck, even the same denomination – but just because we share a pew on Sunday morning doesn’t mean I share your political stance. And it really ticks me off when you start talking politics over coffee, and you assume we all agree – because we go to the same church – and you continually use the pronoun ‘we’ in your pronouncements. Let me tell ya, guys…you seem like basically decent fellows, but there is usually no ‘me’ in your ‘we’.

2. Along the same lines is this sidebar to candidates; stop telling me you’re a ‘family values’ kind of guy. Who’s family? Aadams? Manson? Swiss Robinsons? It’s especially galling when you talk of ‘family values’ and your background includes dalliances with hookers, DUI’s or past domestic disturbance calls to your home. I’m all for redemption, but don’t play the ‘family values’ card – stick with issues, give me your solutions to problems – ya know, the stuff I really want my politicians to do.

3. Quit demonizing everyone you disagree with absurd labels: Socialist! Darwinist! Illegal immigrant supporter! Racist! Anti-business! Muslim! Not a real (fill-in-the-blank)! I know, I know – shock value gets attention…when you are in the sixth grade. Grow the hell up, people.

4. Oh yeah, while you’re at it, please drop the use of the word ‘pro’ from your electioneering. Pro life! Pro choice! Pro guns! Pro business! Pro environment! Pro being pro-whatever-you-want-me-to-be! Per the fine folks at Merriam-Webster:
“pro noun \ˈprō\ 1.an argument or evidence in affirmation 2: the affirmative side or one holding it.”

‘Affirmative side or one holding it’. By definition, you are implying that anyone who is not ‘pro’ like you is automatically ‘anti’ whatever you are ‘pro’ of. That is absolute nonsense. On any issue you want to be ‘pro’ on, there is plenty of room on the spectrum of logical, rational thought before you get to ‘anti’. (see number 1, above)

You get the idea. The whole black/white concept of American politics is ridiculous, dangerous and stupid – and the results are pretty obvious. Our national debate should be taking place in the gray areas where most of us live – somewhere between the I’m- pro-this-and-you’re-anti-that-so-go-to-hell extremists.

As the comic strip character Pogo famously observed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”