October 1, 2007

George Mason Goes Negative

In a blog I very much enjoy, the author take Rudy Giuliani to task for referencing 9/11 too much by putting that style in George Washington's mouth. But what if Washington had faced opposition like there is today? What if he had people second-guessing his in-the-moment decisions, the way Giuliani faces today? Maybe if Washington's former friend, George Mason, had tried to mount a meaningful campaign against his fellow Virginian:

"I stand before you today to ask for your vote for the Presidency. Though I opposed enactment of our new Constitution last year, today I ask you to trust me with its most powerful office -- because you, good people, can be certain that if given this power, I will not abuse it, as I think it ought not to be used in the first place.

"The same cannot be said for my opponent and fellow Virginian, General Washington. His record shows a career of abuse of power.

"In the 1750's, some of you will recall that we enjoyed peaceful relations with England; that we had delegates lobbying Parliament and paid fair levels of taxes to His Majesty's government. We enjoyed general peace, a high degree of colonial autonomy, and prospered in our trades.

"Then, a young man in the military, Captain George Washington, created a dispute with a French trading post and seven French soldiers were scalped. Captain Washington swore afterwards that it was Indians under his command who did this without his knowledge or his authorization. Yet even if we believe his word, this still represents a failure of his leadership, resulting in atrocious acts of torture and death.

"A world war erupted because of this incident in the far western woods of Pennsylvania -- because Captain Washington failed as a leader.

"For seven years, we fought and bled for His Majesty's government against the French. The new king took power after war's end, and to pay for the war, England raised taxes on us. Thus, Captain Washington -- late promoted to Colonel, despite participating in no major engagements other than the aforementioned precipitating atrocity -- suffered the tyrrany of the young new king upon us all.

"And though I served in the House of Burgesses and in the Continental Congress for longer than Colonel Washington, 'twas he who showed up, and silently sat in the back, wearing his military uniform. As the best men among us labored to push for independence and liberty, Colonel Washington hungered for more military command. And he won it, too, the handsome devil. We made him commander of all our forces.

"Now General, my opponent for the Presidency began his command by making a foolhardy attack upon a fortified British position in Brooklyn Heights, on a fool's errand to try and capture New York. The best that can be said for him was that he organized an orderly retreat after it was plain that he could not prevail.

"To be sure, Valley Forge was the finest moment under this man's command. Let no one here, not I nor anyone else, take away anything from the terrible suffering and great bravery shown by all the soldiers who waited in the bitter winter, and fought even on Christmas Day.

"And then? Washington played a waiting game, moving his troops to Yorktown in time to pick up Lord Cornwallis' surrender, obtained not at the point of Washington's gun but rather facing the ships of Talleyrand and the French Navy. One might say that perhaps Washington was not a good tactician, but he had the strategic vision to win the war -- yet his strategy was, in essence, to wait for the French to come and bail him out. And his troops nearly deserted him anyway; he had to resort to a cheap trick, insulting to even a child's intelligence, to keep them fighting.

"So today, General Washington, a man with scant experience holding elective office under either the colonial or the confederate systems of government, wishes to step, immediately, into the most powerful position of government these states in America have yet known. All he truly has to acquaint him with the exercise of such power is his status as the very richest man in all the thirteen states and the running of a plantation on the Potomac River. His track record is one of impetuous, bloody, and disastrous abuse of power; that we have been successful is despite and not because of any of his achievements, and we may expect more of the same from him should he take office this March in Philadelphia."

So the record is clear -- this is a hypothetical exercise, and in real life, I'd have resisted any such attempts to disparage Washington's military and governmental achievements in this fashion. Washington's military, political, and diplomatic strategy was much more elaborate, effective, and powerful than this hypothetical negative speech would have suggested; the battle of Brooklyn Heights was a far more daring thing than the speech suggests, credit for the survival and victories of the army at Valley Forge rests at least as much with the sound leadership Washington provided as with the bravery and fortitude of the soldiers who fought under him. His rally to unpaid patriot troops was no cheap trick, it was a sincere and subtle gesture (he had to announce that Congress was unable to pay the troops for another month in hard currency, and put on his reading glasses to do so, showing how the war had wearied and aged him, as it had the troops) and the march to Yorktown was a brilliant side of an amphibious pincher movement against the well-fortified and effective Cornwallis.

So, it was an interesting exercise writing a hypothetical negative speech about our most revered national figure, just to show it could have been done, and given today's political environment, even someone like Big George would be subject to that sort of attack.

Big George is and remains my favorite of all the Presidents. Sure, he had flaws, mainly owning slaves, but George Mason could hardly have thrown that particular rock in my imaginary negative speech (Mason owned slaves but was opposed to the slave trade). Nor could Mason have attacked Washington for being a member of the Freemasons, as Mason was a Mason also. (There must be a better way to write that). It seems likely that Washington cheated on Martha, which would have been, both then and today, fair game for an attack.

Had Mason actualy delivered this speech, impugning the astonishing military achievements of George Washington and unfairly blaming him for the Seven Years' War, it would have been at least as disgraceful as the speeches which are the subject of the Giuliani parody. (George Mason, in fact, had much more class than to have delivered a speech like this.) No one claims that Washington was a perfect leader, but he was a remarkably effective one, and to nitpick a decision here or there, a tactic that did not work here or there, or to characterize him as a foolhardy adventurer stands in sharp contrast to reality.

And the analogy continues. Giuliani is right to point out that he accomplished something significant on 9/11 and in its wake. He kept the city calm and under control; he got the city to healing and rebuilding almost immediately; he was able to use the tools at his disposal to get the many complex organs of government to work together and start accomplishing something. He did, in short, exactly what needed doing, at a time when a lot of people didn't know what to do at all. His achievements in government before that are also impressive and of note; he took on the Mafia, he streamlined New York's government, and under his leadership, America's biggest, dirtiest, and most violent city became one of the cleanest, safest urban environments in North America. Not a utopia, not free from all of its problems, and not every decision Giuliani made worked out well.

But the Big Apple was much, much better than it had been eight years before. I can remember a time I would have been deathly afraid to go to New York; I considered it a concentration of East Coast urban rot and believed I'd be as likely to be shot to death there as I would have been in Detroit. But in 2000, I chose to travel there as a tourist, because I felt like it would be a good place to be, where nothing bad would happen to me and I'd have lots of things to do that I would enjoy. I felt safe the entire time I was there (granted, I only left Manhattan to go to a Yankees game and to get on the shuttle to the Newark airport) and indeed, I can't recall even seeing any of the sketchy sorts of folks who I see lurking around in bad neighborhoods in Los Angeles... or even here in Palmdale. So why shouldn't Giuliani talk about these achievements in his stump speech; why shouldn't he point out his accomplishments as qualifications for a larger, more difficult job?

The point of the parody, of course, was that Giuliani's reference to the events is disgraceful for the frequency of the references. I doubt the author would begrudge an "appropriate" amount of 9/11 references to Hizzonner, but he thinks it's over the line. I'm still not quite over the phone call, but that's a different matter.

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