The balance that Federal legislators strike today between their reelection and actual public service has drastically careened towards ensuring their re-election, at increasing cost to the public interest. Our politicians must again view their primary function in Washington as public service, not as the perpetuation of their own political ambitions.
Fortunately, to find a model for how our elected officials should act, we need look no further than to our founding father, George Washington. Washington was a hero to his contemporaries and, as Garry Wills explains in his book Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment, “like the Roman Cincinnatus (the famous Roman general who resigned from a position of near absolute dictatorial authority and returned to his farm and family), Washington perfected the art of getting power by giving it away. He did this when he resigned as Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Army, and again when he declined to run for a third term as President.”
Wills relates a story of a conversation during the Revolutionary War between the British King George III and the artist Benjamin West, who knew both the King and Washington. Asked by the King what General Washington would do if he prevailed, West told the King he thought that Washington would return to his farm. “If he does that,” the King is supposed to have remarked, “He will be the greatest man in the world.”
How has the culture in Congress evolved so far away from Washington’s values? How did we get to a place where many things our legislators agree would be good for America do not get enacted because of partisan politics or for reasons related to generating continuing political contributions? Our elected officials’ job is to move this nation forward, regardless of whether doing so means they are putting their own reelection at risk. As my colleague Jasmine Davis has stated, we need more Washington in Washington.