Each night in Washington as dusk settles along the Potomac River, floodlights brighten our national icons: The Washington Monument stands eloquently gazing over at the beautiful Jefferson Memorial, where the statue of the great statesman looks across the Tidal Basin toward the imposing White House, whose first tenant was John Adams. Next door, the Treasury Department's southern portico is graced by a statue of Alexander Hamilton.
In life these four great men did not like one another. Journals of that time are full of stories of their conniving and their bitter rivalries.
Yet look at what they accomplished when they set aside their vanity, ideology and shortsightedness: a federation of distinct regional and economic interests bound by core principles and liberties upon which a carefully balanced national government could function and thrive.
We're deep into a campaign season that amounts to a 21st-century explosion of vanity, ideology and shortsightedness. Angry divisions with no interest in compromise have picked sides and launched a seemingly endless barrage of costly and inflammatory advertising. Politicians' campaigns reflect our political process, something Allegheny College President James H. Mullen Jr. calls a "disgraceful stew of invective … a continuing contest in which each side of the partisan divide sees itself as right and the other as evil, uncaring or, worst of all, unpatriotic."
That's hardly an atmosphere for confronting a gigantic challenge to our federal finances. Consider the context: At a time when the federal government is spending $3.6 trillion a year, just over $1 trillion is on the table before Jan. 1. Tax cuts and tax breaks expire, a financial supplement for doctors treating Medicare patients ends, automatic cuts take effect in domestic and defense programs. And the national debt limit must again be addressed, an event that virtually paralyzed Washington a year ago. To do nothing all but guarantees a second recession, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Together, these decisions have the potential to reshape the federal government and upend the delivery of services from health care to security to food safety. And that's before anyone tackles the challenges of strengthening Social Security and Medicare.
John Adams could just as easily have been talking about today when he wrote in 1776 of his fears that the Continental Congress' decisions would be dictated "by noise, not sense; by meanness, not greatness; by ignorance, not learning; by contracted hearts, not large souls." His conclusion is as appropriate today as it was then: "There must be decency and respect and veneration introduced for persons of authority of every rank or we are undone. In a popular government, this is our only way." Decency, respect and veneration produced compromise and a foundation that has endured for 236 years. We are surrounded by noise, meanness and ignorance. The measure for our leaders must be their ability to rediscover that proven formula of sense, greatness and learning.
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