Daily Camera (Boulder)
This Presidents Day, bring back governance by statesmen
Americans will celebrate Presidents Day tomorrow, honoring the birthdays of two statesmen, George Washington, our first president, and Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president.
Washington is revered as a symbol of the country’s independence and its fight for freedom. Lincoln is remembered for his role in preserving the Union during the Civil War and for trying to abolish slavery.
It is a day to celebrate the achievements of these statesmen and to reflect on the values and principles they embodied. The holiday provides an opportunity for all of us to remember their sacrifices and to acknowledge their lasting impact on our country.
But are we any closer to having the American society that we desire — the one depicted in songs, speeches and verse?
We have no shortage of politics these days, but statesmanship is harder to find than a total eclipse of the sun. Why?
Possibly because conventional wisdom that’s rooted in power, money and control rather than public service guides our nation’s politics.
A statesmen and a politician are two distinct types of individuals. While both may hold public office and make decisions that affect the lives of citizens, there are important differences between the two. Statesmen can be found in Democratic, independent or Republican leaders.
One key difference between the two leaders is that politicians tend to be more focused on shortterm goals, while statesmen tend to have a longer perspective. For example, a politician may make decisions that will help them win the next election. A statesman makes decisions to benefit the country for generations.
Statesmen put the needs of the nation above their own ambitions. They make difficult decisions and take unpopular positions if they believe it is the right thing to do.
Politicians, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with gaining and maintaining power. They make promises and take positions on issues based on what they believe will win them the most votes in their next election, rather than what they believe to be right. They also may make deals and compromises on their principles in order to achieve what is best for them.
Special interest groups, such as corporations, lobbyists, political parties and wealthy individuals, often influence who has the resources to sway politicians to make decisions that benefit the special-interests crowd rather than those of the general population.
I doubt that Washington or Lincoln observe the holiday in whatever plane of existence they currently reside. Why? Because they detested the idea of political parties forming and politicians running America — and I suspect they would both really hate the abysmal behavior of these people since the nation’s formation in 1776.
Washington served two four-year terms as president, from April 30, 1789, until March 4, 1797. In his farewell address, he warned about the divisive influence of factions — political parties controlled by politicians not statesmen — in a democracy, as captured more than two centuries later in “Hamilton,” the enormously successful Broadway play.
In fact, he served a second term mainly to keep the two major parties of the day — Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-republican Party and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist party — from ripping each other apart.
He was concerned about a “disunion” evolving and the nation breaking up because of party disagreements. Washington and others wanted to avoid the bloody civil wars that occurred in seventeenth-century England.
Yes, it does. But somehow, the union has survived almost 247 years despite vicious partisan bickering and the Congress’ lesser lights placing party or personal agendas ahead of country.
Where, oh where, are the principled statesmen and stateswomen who exude strength, calm and respect for their political rivals? They are special people, able to douse fires, comfort their contemporaries, push for the common good and help settle contentious issues.
Wyoming’s past republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney showed she has stateswoman status, and she should receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom because of her courage.
She lost her re-election bid in 2022 because she opposed the leadership of the last president. While I did not agree with many of her policy positions, she demonstrated exemplary statesmanship qualities by placing country over party, re-election and her own interests.
Political polarization has undermined our public life more since the Civil War, making it much harder to make progress for problems such as social injustice, health care (including mental health), substandard schools, loss of belief in institutions, voter rights, campaign financing, credible election practices and more.
One thing I learned when I held elected office was the need for independent thinking, moderate judgment and careful positioning in overseeing public affairs. Partisanship or personal gain prevents fealty to those positive principles, unfortunately.
Our national, state and local politics are in dire need of sound judgment. But party politicians will continue to polarize us.
We need a renewed commitment to public service and to prevent the hungry accretion of political power by the misguided.
Call this a new “Declaration of Independence,” one not rooted in the power of politicians but in, “we the people.” But let’s spare ourselves the fireworks. There is too much work to be done.
Benjamin Franklin was asked at the end of the Constitutional Convention, “Well, Dr. Franklin, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Where, oh where, are our nation’s statesmen and stateswomen?