Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Politics, George Washington, and Elena Kagan . . .

It's politics, stupid . . .

It seems that for the second time in a few short weeks, I feel moved to riff on James Carville's famous 1992 phrase about the economy that may just have sent George H.W. Bush down into the flames of defeat to Bill Clinton. Only today, I don't want to talk about the economy, I want to talk about politics.

As I've also said frequently in this blog, I'm sent books by publishers because I do book pieces for NPR. Last week, a big box arrived from Bloomsbury Press, and among the books inside it was John Ferling's The Ascent of George Washington, which is subtitled "The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon."

George Washington 1782

Our first president is generally held to have operated above the political fray. As historian Michael Beschloss writes,
Washington's dream [was] that America might forever be governed by natural consensus--no parties, no factions, just patriots.
Indeed, once he'd obtained great power, George Washington quite frequently strove to position himself apart from any and all power brokering, having famously stated,
I hope that I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man. (1783)
Arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of liberty abused to licentiousness. (1783)
All see, and most admire, the glare which hovers round the external trappings of elevated office. To me there is nothing in it, beyond the lustre which may be reflected from its connection with a power of promoting human felicity. (1790).

I haven't finished Ferling's book, but I'm far enough along to think that he makes a pretty good case that George Washington appears in history as such a non-political animal mostly because he was such a skilled one.

In my reading, he's just finished his first years of service in the Virginia Militia (picture at left shows Washington in Militia uniform), attaining dizzying heights mostly by skillful milking of family connections (along with occasional  flashes of bravery counterbalanced by incidents of military bungling). In other words, John Ferling is making a fully documented case that the Father of our Country was as skillful a political animal as anyone else who's served as an elected official in America.

I find finding out that our first president was as enmeshed in politics as the rest of them comforting as we brace ourselves for Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. President Obama nominated her the Monday after conservative Utah Republican Senator Bob Bennett's stunning failure to get himself renominated because he wasn't deemed conservative enough. As Howard Fineman writes for MSNBC:
The farther to the right the GOP moves, the less willingness it will have to vote for any Obama nominee, even one with a hard-to-pin down track record (and reputation for team play) like Kagan.
Tea Party pressure is particularly important in the context of the Kagan nomination when you give it a close eye in the Senate. For example, Bennett’s Utah buddy, Sen. Orrin Hatch, is a key member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will conduct televised hearings on the Kagan pick.
Hatch loves to play the role of the reasonable guy, willing to cut deals across the aisle. But Bennett had that reputation, too — which is why he just got whacked. Hatch, who is up for reelection again in 2012, may not want to play the go-between role again.
Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has never filibustered a court pick and prides himself on levelheadedness when it comes to the judiciary, but he is feeling pressure from his right as well.
His handpicked candidate for the GOP Senate nomination in his state, Trey Grayson, is likely to lose to Dr. Rand Paul (son of Ron), who is Sarah Palin's pick and a Tea Party favorite.
Party leaders like Dr. James Dobson of "Focus on the Family" are siding with Paul, and McConnell is scrambling to build ties to Tea Party-types he refused to take seriously a year ago. He may want to seek favor with them by giving Kagan a hard time.

According to historian John Ferling, such power-mongering was good enough for George, so who are we to quarrel with history?

What are your thoughts on this process for figuring out who is truly qualified to sit on the Supreme Court?

No comments:

Post a Comment