Hitler used to quote Charlemagne and Frederick the Great. In the same vein, U.S. political campaign speeches today often quote the leaders who set the United States up in business 200-odd years ago. Unfortunately, when these American ancients are quoted on such 21st-century matters as health care, gay marriage or gasoline taxes, their thoughts are being lassoed from the airy reaches of space. A look at the historical record reveals such “endorsements“ to be generally bullpoop.
President Obama recently quoted George Washington in calling for new taxes on wealthy Americans – not likely for a gentleman farmer who owned hundreds of slaves. Obama also uses historical accomplishments to illustrate a national sense of purpose: “Together we built railroads and highways, the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, the interstate highway system, the transcontinental railroad.”
In fact, these past triumphs were rarely, if ever, achieved in agreement. Epic accomplishments were generally the products of bitter partisan wrangling. It took the Civil War to settle the question of the transcontinental railroad, a goal of lawmakers for 30 years. Built too late to fulfill its original rationale of keeping California in the Union, after it finally opened, it caused a scandal that nearly destroyed the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant and permanently marked the Republicans as the party of special interests. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific were two of the most hated corporations in American history.
The interstate highway system was hardly a “national togetherness.” When FDR first proposed a mammoth road network in the 1930s – a project that eventually brought fame to Dwight Eisenhower – the Republicans called it “another ascent into the stratosphere of New Deal jitterbug economics” (for readers of the millennium generation, “jitterbug” refers to an undignified teenage dance form).
Using the Hoover Dam to show how Americans “worked together” is great for speechmaking, but short on accuracy – the project was far from “togetherness.” Environmentalists called it a desecration of one of America’s great natural landscapes, legislators cursed it as waste, and construction was beset with racial and labor quarrels. While the dam fits very well within a list of government projects that result in major economic development – an investment that could not have been built by private enterprise – it surely was not a “together” effort.
Mr. Romney often promises to uphold “a course that the founders envisioned” by repealing the new health law; in fact, where medicine is concerned, the founding fathers believed in the drawing of blood as a curative for everything from dropsy to night sweats. Romney also uses national history wishfully, claiming that the United States neither invades nor conquers. He often says, “The U.S. is unique in the history of the world as the only nation willing to lay down the lives of sons and daughters and take no land in return.” He even built a speech on this chassis when speaking in San Diego – a Mexican city that cost the lives of 21 American soldiers as part of a U.S. invasion that yielded half of Mexico’s national territory. Not to mention all the land that was taken in repeated Indian wars and treaty violations by the United States.
Contrary to Mr. Romney’s rosy view, when Americans traveled west, they took a shopping list.
When used in a political campaign, terms such as ”founding fathers” or “national togetherness” are airy phrases that often make malarkey of history. Ronald Reagan loved Thomas Paine, who almost certainly would have disapproved of the modern Republican Party. Bill Clinton admired Alexander Hamilton, who, though similarly skilled in bedroom hanky panky, was far from a Clinton duplicate (however, of uncertain provenance himself, like Bill he might be an inspiration to fatherless boys).
The new health care law is an example. It is a great achievement over the strenuous opposition of a privileged, determined opposition that used every weapon – moral and immoral – to attack, delay or disembowel. In years to come, as more politicians seek to mislead voters, it, too, will be cited as a great case of progress.
Thought for the week
In 2010, one person took 93 cents out of each dollar of U.S. income, while 99 people shared the remaining 7 cents.
Rodney Quinn, a former Maine secretary of state, lives in Westbrook. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More about Quinn's Corner
- ARTICLE: QUINN'S CORNER – Sharing chores at the farm?
- ARTICLE: QUINN'S CORNER – Mixed market messages