When I retired five years ago after a career as a rather maverick newspaperman bristling at the restraints of corporate journalism, I vowed to speak what was in my heart and to say "yes" to just about everything.
Being a yes-man instead of a naysayer has worked out wonderfully for the most part, but it has also gotten me into some awkward situations as it did when Leslie Dutton — the woman behind the Full Disclosure Network's public access video investigative reporting — asked me to play the role of George Washington in full costume at her annual fundraising event this President's Day weekend.
The keynote speaker, Scott Minerd, chief investment officer for Guggenheim Partners — the equity firm that recently bought the Los Angeles Dodgers — was set to talk about Washington's Farewell Address, one of the seminal documents of American history.
I cannot tell a lie about this, for as much as I knew what Hamilton and Madison and Jefferson believed, I really didn't know very much about what the father of our country stood for beyond the fact that he was a man of great character who led a ragtag army to victory over the most powerful military on earth and got America going by serving two terms as president when all around him were bickering ambitious men who would have thrown the country into chaos.
So I've been reading a lot about Washington and to my amazement his Farewell Address was so prescient he warned against just about everything that I see is going wrong today: endless foreign wars, entanglements with other nations with too many friends and enemies, political parties that thrive on factionalism and disunity and politicians that serve their own, not the public, interest.
As I sipped my evening martini the other night in all my Washington regalia topped with a brilliant white wig and tri-corner hat, I felt myself slipping into character and thought of a possible opening line once the 100 or so guests stopped jeering in disappointment that a real-life former president was not in attendance, as promised.
"I've been spinning in my grave for too long. I cannot stay quiet any longer."
More than anything, Washington believed in the absolute need for unity to sustain a free nation, something that was only possible when North and South, East and West, respected the values, needs and interests of each other.
"The unity of Government, which constitutes you one people, is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquillity at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very Liberty, which you so highly prize.
"But as it is easy to foresee, that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed, to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed…"
He envisioned temporary alliances with foreign nations and a military sufficient to discourage attack — not a military industrial complex that wields overwhelming power at home and abroad or a nation that has rarely gone even a handful of years without military engagement.
In his mind, having watched the vicious in-fighting between the Federalists and the Democrat-Republicans, the real danger to the nation was political parties.
"They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.…
"They are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines, which have lifted them to unjust dominion."
That's just a fraction of the visionary things Washington had to say in 1796 — 217 years ago — that seem to foreshadow how so many Americans feel, why so many are shunning the labels of Democrat or Republican, why so many feel alienated from our institutions.
For me, this walk through the mind of George Washington has been an eye-opening experience and suggests that the way out of the modern-day American dilemma is to hearken back to the origins of our country and remember we are all in this together, each and every one of us.