03/13/2012 10:22 am ET Updated May 13, 2012

Civics Lessons from Our National Monuments

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Amid the first flowers of spring, Kathy and I circled the Capital's Tidal Basin this weekend, visiting the monuments dedicated to our country's greatest leaders, reading their words.

Some would-be contemporary leaders might benefit from a similar walk through time.

For those who call, for example, for the narrowest and most limited interpretation of the Constitution, the words of Thomas Jefferson, our third president, the drafter of the Declaration of Independence and a man often identified as a strict Constitutional constructionist, might surprise. Among those inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial are these:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in law and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.

That doesn't sound to me like a man who would have viewed the Constitution in the 21st century through an 18th century lens.

For the proponents of permanent tax cuts for the rich and trickle down for the rest, the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt ring out.

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

Just last week, the University of Michigan's National Poverty Center reported that the number of American children living on less than $2 a day, a standard applied by The World Bank to measure poverty in developing nations, doubled from 1.4 million to 2.8 million between 1996 and 2011, The Nation reports.

For those too quick to forget the carnage in Iraq or our decade-long-and-counting war in Afghanistan -- those who are lobbying to bomb Syria and take out Iran's uncertain capacity to develop nuclear weapons -- consider this number: 58,272. That's the number of Americans killed between 1959 and 1975 in a place called Vietnam, fighting bravely for a cause that even today eludes us. Every one of their names is inscribed on the polished black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The causes of most wars, it seems, are so much clearer going in than coming out. Let's not so quickly forget that. Let's not deceive ourselves again.

The newest memorial that graces Washington's Tidal Basin honors the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His words, inscribed on a granite wall behind the main memorial scupture, speak as much to today's younger generations, and to the domestic and international schisms that divide today's world, as they did to those living a half century ago. Like Jefferson's words, like Roosevelt's, King's words are timeless and universal.

If we are to have peace on earth ... our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means that we must develop a world perspective.

When, I wonder, will we as a nation truly listen to the words of our greatest leaders rather than merely posting them on memorial walls for posterity?