As we consider our state of affairs this July 4th during a time of seemingly endless bickering and conflict in Washington, it is perhaps encouraging to understand that these tensions have been a part of the republic since its founding, yet leaders have always arisen to help us find a path forward.
Please allow me to recommend what has become a July 4th tradition for our family: watching the movie 1776. This musical production has been special to me ever since I was part of the cast of St. Cloud Community Theatre's production of 1776 in the bicentennial year of 1976.
It's a film that will both tickle your funny bone and lift your spirits as it pokes fun at all the foibles of our form of government, but like all Hollywood classics, leaves you inspired to reach for new heights in the end:
Congress: John Adams of Massachusetts takes the lead in criticizing Congress by beginning the movie with a monologue, "I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress!" Adams later excoriates the chamber saying, "A second flood, a simple famine, plagues of locusts everywhere, or a cataclysmic earthquake, I'd accept with some despair. But no, You sent us Congress! Good God, Sir, was that fair?"
Democracy: Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania comments on Democracy, "What Plato called 'A charming form of government, full of variety and disorder.' I never knew Plato had been to Philadelphia." One of course could say the same about Washington, D.C. or our state capitals. Indeed Lewis Morris of New York says of his home state's legislature, "They speak very fast and very loud, and nobody listens to anybody else, with the result that nothing ever gets done." Fast forward two hundred-plus years and we have an entire system of communications, the Internet, telling us exactly the same thing about our current legislatures.
Impatience: Yet the play also pokes fun at the impatience of those seeking quick solutions to complicated challenges. After learning that the draft of the Declaration of Independence had not yet been completed, John Adams complains to Thomas Jefferson, "Good GOD! A whole week! The entire earth was created in a week!" Jefferson coolly responds, "Someday, you must tell me how you did it." That lesson is even more relevant in today's "always-on" culture.
Sanitized History: Covering up the conflicts from historical events makes resolving big struggles seem easy. Doing so leaves us more discouraged than we should be in the middle of the next great dilemma. Adams complains to Franklin, "I won't be in the history books anyway, only you. Franklin did this and Franklin did that and Franklin did some other damn thing. Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them -- Franklin, Washington, and the horse -- conducted the entire revolution by themselves."
Compromise: Franklin remarks to John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, "Revolutions come into this world like bastard children, Mr. Dickinson -- half improvised and half compromised." In politics, one side's ideal is often the other's abomination, so in order to find feasible solutions both parties must learn to work together to maximize shared values and promote win-win outcomes.
Respect: Franklin admonishes Adams to treat his opponents with respect, "These men, no matter how much we may disagree with them, they are not ribbon clerks to be ordered about. They are proud, accomplished men, the cream of their colonies." Failing to appreciate the accomplishments of your rivals will only lessen your odds of success. They will dig in their heels and make an agreement even harder to reach.
Need for Perseverance: As Adams reflects on the upcoming vote to ratify the Declaration of Independence he sings, "They want to me to quit; they say John, give up the fight. Still to England I say Good night, forever, good night! For I have crossed the Rubicon. Let the bridge be burned behind me. Come what may, come what may. Commitment! ... I hear the cannons roar. I see Americans -- all Americans free forever more." Leaders must have the courage and conviction to stay engaged in the debate, even if the path ahead will be difficult, or as was possible for the Founding Fathers if they had not succeeded, fatal.
Need for You to Commit: Just before the vote on independence, Dr. Lyman Hall of Georgia says to Adams, "In trying to resolve my dilemma I remembered something I'd once read, 'that a representative owes the People not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion,' It was written by Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament." Hall then walks to the tally board and changes his 'nay' vote to 'yea' on independence. Making the right choice may not always be easy or popular, but its rewards will be far greater than settling for something less.
Let us all take the opportunity this 4th of July to do more than just complain about Washington, but to recommit ourselves to treating and engaging those we oppose with respect in order to develop solutions that are truly win-win, even if half-improvised and half-compromised. For without that, there would not be an America to celebrate this July 4th.
Hon. Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).
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