What do you do for 24 hours in a car driving to and from Texas when both occupants are conservative Republicans who have know each other for more than 40 years? Well, after a little liberal-agenda bashing, you listen to audio books.
My first pick was “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. It is the story of Louis Zamperini — a true American hero who was an Olympic athlete, Army aviator and P.O.W. (In a later column, I will focus on Zamperini and the human will to survive and forgive.) The book is riveting, and I recommend it with a rating of five stars out of five.
Next up was David McCullough’s “1776.” Although there are many characters in the book like many others, I was most impressed with McCullough’s characterization of George Washington — although, for me, possibly from a different perspective. Sure, he was known as the father of our country and a great president, military genius, motivator, leader, legislator and statesman. But how about visionary and a risk taker or, better yet, a man of faith who hoped for things that were unseen.
If that sounds a little biblical, it is. Saint Paul, the most prolific letter writer in the Bible, often says that we are to hope for those things that are unseen and not to hope for what we see. While leading an army, keeping the peace within that army and facing the fact that defeat would mean that he would have been deemed a traitor and probably hanged for treason, Washington was able to hope for life after the war of revolution. He was able to hope for things he could not see.
McCullough cites many detailed letters written by Washington to the people who were making additions and improvements to his home at Mount Vernon. Some of these letters were written during the siege of Boston and the defense of New York City. Imagine the mental capability and focus necessary to envision and express small carpentry details for a bedroom miles away while at the same time leading folks in harm’s way. Imagine the risk involved in expending funds on a venture that Washington might never have seen completed or seeing a venture overtaken by events because he had lost his freedom. Washington was truly a visionary and risk taker, and he was confident in his ability to succeed.
To paraphrase singer/songwriter Paul Simon, “Where have you gone, George Washington? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” As a nation today, where do we turn our lonely eyes? To Congress? To the nation’s executive? Where is the George Washington of today? Are there any George Washingtons out there? I would settle for a Franklin, a Hancock, a Jefferson or an Adams.
Yet, today, we as a nation are saddled with a Congress that wants to regulate which light bulb we use in our home while trying to determine how to get past Aug. 2 without jeopardizing being re-elected. There is no risk and no vision in affirming the current Social Security formulas and continuing to fund Medicare and Medicaid and the myriad other government-funded entitlement programs.
Today, almost 50 percent of Americans receive some form of government payment, and nearly half of American households fall below the national mean annual household income level. “Redistributing the wealth” and continuation or expansion of government entitlements plays well in the polls used to predict who can be re-elected.
Our chief executive and the leadership (both sides of the aisle) in Congress play “brinksmanship” with our nation’s finances. All the while, one group says “no increase in taxes” while the another group says “no cuts to programs.” In business, that’s like saying “we’re not going to increase revenue” and “we’re not going to cut expenses.” That is a vision for going out of business.
Things are not much better at the state level, where idiotic pledges of austerity bump into egotistical thoughts of revenge for perceived personal slights. All of this makes the once-noble vision of “One Maryland” look like another “woulda, coulda, shoulda” venture.
On the brighter side, this great nation has survived foreign invasion, a Civil War, two world wars, a Great Depression, two or three unpopular wars, and terrorist attacks from both within and without. Names like Monroe, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt and Reagan have emerged to become the Washington of their respective times. In 2012, I hope we find a new name to lead us forward. In the meantime, I suggest you read “1776.” It is also a five-star book.
Art Callaham is a local community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.