It was only a matter of time before cancel culture scored a hit in its fight to eliminate the Founders from our collective memory. On Tuesday, the San Francisco board of education, by a vote of six to one, opted to rename more than 40 schools named for historic figures whose lives can no longer stand up to woke scrutiny.
The action results from a resolution adopted in May 2018, which laid the groundwork to scrub from schools the name of anyone who “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting societal progress; or whose actions led to genocide; or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Among the names being struck, George Washington—first president of the United States, leader of the revolution that secured the nation’s independence from Great Britain and the man whose leadership established a model followed by every one of his successors over the more than 200 years since he was first inaugurated.
The stated reason for the move is that Washington, as everyone readily admits, was a slave owner. By contemporary standards, that’s apparently enough to cancel out everything else he did. Slavery is an odious, inexcusable practice—and always has been. One cannot help but feel, however, that the energies being spent attacking the father of our country and other Founders over their participation in it would be better spent marshaling the forces necessary to eradicate slavery where it still exists.
All this was predictable. Washington was once a venerated American institution, standing apart from every other president and every other leader. He was the reason the United States came into existence and the reason it survived its infancy. No leader, before or after, can match his record of accomplishment, which is why we, his grateful descendants, used to observe his birthday as a national holiday.
That all began to change during the last great period of social unrest, back in the 1960s, when for the sake of efficiency the celebration of Washington’s birthday was moved to the closest Monday as part of an effort to add a few more three-day weekends to the calendar.
Once the first president’s birthday was moved, the effort to obscure it became that much easier. To avoid adding a federal holiday with all its attendant expenses to the calendar, Washington’s birthday was combined with Abraham Lincoln’s to create “Presidents’ Day,” accelerating the toppling of the man from Mt. Vernon from the cultural pedestal upon which he had been deservedly perched for nearly 200 years.
We are losing—and may have already lost—the commonality of purpose that made the United States what one former president at least called “the last, best hope” for mankind. The lack of any formal observance of Washington’s birthday, which is just now upon us once again, corresponds with a growing lack of understanding of the kind of man he was, his indispensability to the cause of American independence and just what it was he accomplished.
To the extent people know him now, it’s not because of the excellent scholarship of historians like Ron Chernow but because of the way he appears as a supporting character in the life of Alexander Hamilton in the eponymous musical devoted to the life of “the ten-dollar founding father.”
Rather than present a more balanced approach to his life and story, those who would condemn Washington seek now to eradicate him from the pantheon of American heroes worthy of our continued respect and admiration.
Washington is, as I’ve written before, the model citizen-statesman. His counsel regarding America’s role in the world is still valuable. His wisdom is eternal. He is a great man of history who, being in the right place at the right time, changed the course of human events in a way that set all Americans thereafter on the path of what another founding father famously called “the pursuit of happiness.”
What Washington told us about the need to limit the powers of the central government so that human freedom might flourish is as relevant today as it was then. His wise leadership produced what has become the greatest, freest, most prosperous, most generous society ever to exist. No American should be allowed to forget that, no matter how large a blot his ownership of slaves made on his copy paper.
Washington was a towering figure, standing head and shoulders above almost all his contemporaries. We need to return him to his place of honor on the calendar and in our hearts and to understand why his name was considered worthy of being put on schools in the first place. Those who are trying to rewrite history so they may change it should be ashamed. We let them succeed at our own peril. We cannot forge ahead together towards a better day if we do not understand where we began, warts and all. It is time for Congress to strike a blow against historical revisionism by restoring Washington’s Birthday on the calendar and moving it back to February 22, where it belongs.
Presidents sworn in during crises are popular at first. But unforeseen events can soon change that.
A president elected at a time of deep national crisis generally has an advantage over one elected when things are going fairly well. Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in shortly after the Great Depression reached its nadir. Harry Truman became president in the final, bloodiest phase of World War II. Richard Nixon inherited Vietnam and domestic turmoil from Lyndon B. Johnson. Barack Obama entered the White House in the depths of the global financial crisis.
All four had their ups and downs, but all were re-elected. If you take over at a dark time — especially if it’s just before the dawn — the chances are you’ll be able to play “Happy Days Are Here Again” when you run for a second term.
In a similar way, Joe Biden took the oath of office last Wednesday as the third and biggest wave of the Covid-19 pandemic appeared to be nearing its crest, a year after the Chinese government belatedly acknowledged the seriousness of the disaster that had begun in Wuhan. Like many new administrations since Roosevelt’s in 1933, the Biden administration now seeks to impress us with a hundred days of hyperactivity, beginning with 17 executive actions on Inauguration Day. Coming soon: a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill.
In truth, the vaccination program already underway, combined with the naturally acquired immunity of people previously infected with the virus, would probably get the U.S. close to herd immunity by the summer, even if Joe Biden spent the next six months just riding his Peloton. And the economy would roar back to something like normal service as the pandemic ended even if Republicans had retained control of the Senate and blocked further fiscal support.
In short, Joe Biden, who starts out with a 68% approval rating, according to Gallup, ought to be even more popular by Memorial Day — not just twice as popular as Trump was throughout his term, but up there with the most popular presidents since polling began: Truman on VJ Day, John F. Kennedy in his first 100 days, George H.W. Bush after the Gulf War, George W. Bush after 9/11 — the exclusive 80%-plus Approval Club.
I suspect it won’t happen. Why? According to legend, the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once replied to a journalist who had asked what his biggest problem was: “Events, dear boy, events.” (The phrase Macmillan really used, according to the historian David Dilks, was “the opposition of events.”) The Donald Rumsfeld equivalent was “stuff happens” — stuff like the chaos into which Iraq descended in 2003, dragging his boss’s popularity down with it.
Sometimes events are beyond a new president’s control. Sometimes they are unforced errors of his own making. But presidents don’t simply make history. Often, history comes at them fast.
So enthusiastic are most journalists about the new administration that much coverage of last week’s inauguration recalled late Soviet Pravda. Indeed, I have never been more persuaded by the historian Harold James’s mischievous suggestion last year that the U.S. has entered its “late Soviet”phase. (The young Oxford philosopher Jacob Reynolds nailed it.) Example:
Reporter: Will [Biden] keep Donald Trump’s Air Force One color scheme change?
Biden Press Secretary Jen Psaki: This is such a good question!
In the hope that it won’t get me banned from Twitter and Facebook for sedition, I am going to suggest some of the events that could plausibly blow the Biden administration off course in the coming months.
First, a few past examples. No sooner had Truman achieved victory over Japan than the U.S. was gripped by a wave of strikes by everyone from oil workers to elevator operators, as the unions seized the opportunity of peacetime to flex their muscles. Workers at General Motors downed tools for three months. “The Congress are balking, labor has gone crazy and management isn’t far from insane in selfishness,” Truman complained to his mother. Speaking at a Gridiron Club dinner in December 1945, Truman half-joked that William Tecumseh Sherman had been wrong: “I’m telling you I find peace is hell.”
Not long after turning the White House into Camelot with one of the great inaugural addresses, Kennedy was persuaded by the director of central intelligence, Allen Dulles, to launch Operation Zapata, an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba. The venture ended in abject failure at the Bay of Pigs on April 20. “We really blew this one,” fumed Kennedy. “How could that crowd at CIA and the Pentagon be this wrong?” The administration had been “revealed as if no more than a continuation of the Eisenhower-Dulles Past,” lamented Kennedy’s court historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “We not only look like imperialists, we look like ineffectual imperialists, which is worse; and we look like stupid, ineffectual imperialists, which is worst of all.”
Having succeeded to the presidency following Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson soon embarked on an escalation of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The authorization Johnson sought from Congress after the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” in August 1964 — to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” — was a crucial step down the path that would destroy his presidency.
Exaggerating the evidence that the Navy destroyer Maddox had come under attack, Johnson seized the opportunity to outflank his Republican rival Barry Goldwater. “I’ll tell you what I want,” he snapped at a breakfast with congressional leaders. “I not only want those patrol boats that attacked the Maddox destroyed, I want everything at that harbor destroyed; I want the whole works destroyed. I want to give them a real dose.”
Escalation in Vietnam was one the greatest unforced errors in American history. It might not have happened if Kennedy had lived. Conversely, think how different history might have been if Ronald Reagan had not survived the assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr., which occurred just over two months after Reagan’s inauguration. Events, dear boy.
Often the first year of an administration is marred by turf wars and infighting. In Bill Clinton’s case, there was a turbulent contest for influence between those, such as the Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who had been close to Clinton on the campaign trail the previous year, and those, such as the former Republican David Gergen, who were brought in to provide some administrative experience midway through the first year in office.
The great unforced error of Clinton’s first year, vividly described by Bob Woodward in “The Agenda,” was the decision to let First Lady Hillary Clinton drive health-care reform, which she proceeded to do — into a brick wall of congressional opposition. Barack Obama arguably made a similar mistake in his first term when he opted to prioritize health-care reform instead of focusing exclusively on economic recovery.
Joe Biden has one advantage over all his predecessors: No one has come to the highest office in the land with more experience than the man who was first elected to the Senate in 1972, at the age of 29. Re-elected six times to represent Delaware, Biden also served two terms as vice president.
It therefore seems reasonable to assume that he will know to avoid at least some of these pitfalls — especially as he must be keenly aware of how historically slim his party’s control of Congress is. Naive analogies between Biden and Roosevelt or Johnson overlook the stark reality that the Democrats had 59 Senate seats and 313 House seats in 1933, and 68 Senate seats and 295 House seats in 1965 — compared with just 50 Senate seats and 222 House seats today.
Given these narrow majorities, and after an inaugural address that featured the words “unity” or “uniting” no fewer than 11 times, you may be looking forward to a glad, confident morning of bipartisan cooperation. I am sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not going to happen, either. Not only do the Republican Senate and House minority leaders, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, almost certainly intend to rerun the successful Obama-era strategy of opposing every move the Democratic administration makes. Team Biden has also lost no time in providing them with ammunition.
Some of Biden’s executive actions on Day 1 were unobjectionable, but the fact that six out of 17 were essentially measures to liberalize the immigration system was telling, as were the remarks on that subject made last week by Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Announcing a plan to give all illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship seems like one easy way to reunite an opposition party that Donald Trump seemed to have divided irreparably by his reckless rabble-rousing just two weeks ago.
Two steps in the same direction are the “woke” executive orders announced last Wednesday. The one “On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government” tells all federal institutions and agencies “affirmatively [to] advance equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity … [by] embedding fairness in decision-making processes.” The other, “On Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation,” will (according to some conservative commentary) require federally funded schools to allow transgender athletes who were born male but identify as female to compete in women’s sports and for women’s scholarships.
For the people who hate Trumpism and wokeism in equal measure, last Wednesday was pure whiplash.
These are not so much forced errors as conscious choices born of the Biden administration’s central policy dilemma. The fiscal and monetary policies favored by its economics team — deficits and quantitative easing as far as the eye can see — will widen the country’s already wide inequalities by cranking up further the prices of real estate and financial assets. Conveniently for Biden, the left wing of the Democratic Party cares more about identity politics than working-class living standards, so they will be fed a steady diet of green new dealing, critical race theory and transgender rights. Welcome to the ESG administration, where environmental and social virtue-signaling will provide a smokescreen for the inexorable growth of shareholder value.
That Republicans will oppose all this is a predictable “gray rhino,”something Team Biden must see coming. The same applies to another impending Harold Macmillan event, namely the deterioration of the public-health crisis in the coming weeks as new strains of SARS-CoV-2 spread across the U.S. The B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in England late last year, has already been found in 12 states. It is between 50% and 70% more infectious as earlier strains of the virus. On Friday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested it may also be more deadly.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and a member of the Biden transition team, spoke last week of “a perfect storm,” telling Bloomberg: “When this B.1.1.7 takes off, it’s going to be hell. That’s what they’re walking into right now. I hope I’m wrong. God, I hope I’m wrong.”
Biden’s public health team will be scanning anxiously the data from the U.K. and from Israel, where races are currently underway between high-speed vaccination programs and the rapidly spreading new strain of the virus. They will be watching even more nervously the news from South Africa, where another new strain has been re-infecting people who had previously had Covid.
According to a sobering report published on Jan. 18 by the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases: “People who have recovered from SARS-CoV-2 infection are usually protected from being infected a second time … because they develop neutralizing antibodies that remain in their blood for at least 5-6 months … These antibodies bind to specific parts of the spike protein that have mutated in the new variant (K417N and E484K). We now know that these mutations have allowed the virus to become resistant to antibody neutralization. The blood samples from half the people we tested showed that all neutralizing activity was lost.”
It is too early to tell just how bad this news is. What is clear, however, is that SARS-CoV-2 is evolving in ways that threaten our current strategy of vaccination, and that it will continue to do so for as long as the southern hemisphere countries lag behind the developed northern countries in the quantity and quality of vaccines available.
One president, Trump, has already caught Covid-19. Even under normal circumstances, Joe Biden’s health would be a concern. At 78, he is older than Ronald Reagan was at the end of his presidency. The most recent Social Security Actuarial Life Table (for 2017) states that a man Biden’s age has a 4.8% probability of dying within a year. Around two-fifths of his contemporaries are dead already. Now add Covid into the mix. Thus far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 59% of U.S. deaths from the pandemic have been of people older than 74.
Events, dear boy, events. What happens when you announce your plan to relax immigration restrictions and give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship? The answer is that the flow of would-be migrants increases. The number of detentions on the Arizona-Mexico border was already rising last fall. A “caravan” of 9,000 Hondurans is currently making its way northward through Guatemala.
What happens when you come to power after a wave of protest in support of Black Lives Matters that was marred by violence, vandalism and looting, and when at least some members of your party expressed sympathy with slogans such as “Defund the Police”? The answer is that you inherit a wave of violent crime that has seen homicide numbers jump by more than 50% in six major cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, Portland and Seattle.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what happens when, despite your obvious contempt for your predecessor, you largely adopt the single most important part of his foreign policy? For all his manifest defects of character, Trump was right to change the direction of U.S. policy toward China — to abandon the fantasy that integration into the global economy was going to liberalize the Chinese Communist Party, and to mount a multifaceted challenge to Xi Jinping’s bid for world power.
On this issue, the Biden administration intends to continue where Trump left off. Incoming secretary of state Antony Blinken told senators at his confirmation hearing last week, “There is no doubt that [China] poses the most significant challenge of any nation-state in the world to the United States.”
Asked if he agreed with his predecessor Mike Pompeo that China was committing genocide against its Uighur population, Blinken replied: “That would be my judgment as well. I think we’re very much in agreement.” Was he open to imposing trade sanctions in connection with that genocidal policy? Yes. Did he support the move by Pompeo to relax restrictions on official dealings with Taiwan? “I want to see that process through to conclusion if it hasn’t been completed,” replied Blinken.
Even more remarkable was the article published by Kurt Campbell in Foreign Affairs on the eve of the announcement that he would be the “Asia czar” on the National Security Council. “The United States needs to make a conscious effort to deter Chinese adventurism,” wrote Campbell and his co-author, Rush Doshi, who is also contending for an NSC job:
This means investing in long-range conventional cruise and ballistic missiles, unmanned carrier-based strike aircraft and underwater vehicles, guided-missile submarines, and high-speed strike weapons. … [The U.S.] also needs to work with other states to disperse U.S. forces across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean … [and] to reshore sensitive industries and pursue a “managed decoupling” from China. … Washington will have to work with others to … collectively design penalties if China decides to take steps that threaten the larger order.
The first Cold War was not the stable equilibrium of mutually assured destruction it now appears with the benefit of hindsight. It was one damned crisis after another, with the worst over Korea in 1950, Berlin in 1961 and Cuba in 1962. Something similar will be true of Cold War II. Even when Chinese-American relations were good — back in the days of “win-win” economic interdependence — there were crises.
On April 1, 2001, when George W. Bush was just 10 weeks into his presidency, a U.S. Navy signals intelligence aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter jet about 70 miles off the island of Hainan, where the American spy-plane was forced to land. The 24 crew members were detained for 10 days, during which they were interrogated. The Chinese fighter pilot was killed in the collision.
Twenty years ago, both sides had strong incentives to defuse the crisis, and American expressions of “sorrow,” interpreted by Beijing as “sorry,” sufficed. But would the same be true today in the event of a comparable collision in the air or at sea? I think not. In 2001, the Chinese economy was 13% the size of the American in current dollar terms, compared with 75% today. And unlike Cold War I, which was fundamentally a transatlantic conflict, with Europe as its major battleground and the Caribbean as a sideshow, Cold War II is transpacific, with East Asia as the major battleground.
At some point in the Biden presidency, I expect, there will be a crisis over Taiwan, North Korea or the South China Sea. And that will be the main event — the moment when we discover if the strange pageant we saw last week was morning in Joe Biden’s America, or the twilight of the late-Soviet United States.
Now especially, America needs its heroes. The nation is badly divided along ideological lines without any unifying figures to bring us together. We are losing, or may have already lost, the commonality of purpose that made the United States what at least one president called mankind’s “last best hope.”
It would be easy to blame a lone politician or the media generally for our societal divisions and resulting decline in connectivity. And it would be wrong. It has happened over time and is a cultural phenomenon with many facets and authors.
One symptom, one I like to point out every year at this time, is the lack of any formal observance of George Washington’s birthday, February 22. We used to honor it as a national holiday. But our first commander-in-chief has been given short shrift since 1968, when Congress moved the holiday to the third Monday in February to give everyone an additional long weekend.
In the ensuing years, the nation’s first president has seen himself downgraded from his position as a revered national icon to a pitchman for carpet and auto sales. His picture is no longer omnipresent on the walls of the nation’s public schools. His image remains with us on the currency, while his name, which remains on street signs and high schools, has become synonymous with dysfunctional, bloated, wasteful and inefficient government.
Little children, as I have written before, no longer repeat excitedly the (admittedly apocryphal) story of young George admitting to having chopped down his father’s cherry tree because he could not tell a lie. And this may be because they no longer know it. They’re more concerned that his legacy, like many of the founders’, is tainted by the stain of slavery.
Rather than pursue a balanced approach to his place in history, he is all but ignored. This should not be. His positive actions as president and before still influence us today.
He led the American forces in the war for independence and was offered a kingdom but turned it down to return to Mt. Vernon and life as a gentleman farmer. Victorious in war, he was content to let others bear the responsibility for creating the hard-won new nation. Only after nearly a decade of struggle to establish a working system would he again answer the call, becoming president of the convention that wrote a new and thus-far enduring Constitution and the federal government therein established.
Most everyone who has followed Washington in office has sought to emulate him, at least in part. His counsel regarding America’s role in the world is still valued. The precedents he set for presidential behavior are still followed. His wisdom is eternal, making him a great man of history who, because he was in the right place at the right time, changed the course of human events.
What he told us about the separation of powers and the need to limit them to allow human freedom to flourish is as relevant today as it was then—perhaps even more so. We live in the greatest, freest, most prosperous, most generous society on the face of the earth.
We cannot forge ahead together if we do not understand where we have been and where we came from. We must acknowledge our failures, but not at the expense of being able to celebrate our successes. The tensions established by the founders produced an incrementalism essential to the rule of law, which, it has been said, exists in part to temper the passions of mankind.
The Mt. Vernon Ladies Association, which operates Washington’s home at Mt. Vernon as a historical site, as well as a place fostering research into his life, is fighting to keep Washington’s legacy alive for us all. Hopefully, they are winning.
In the meantime, our elected leaders could help restore his reputation to its proper place by rebranding Presidents Day as Washington’s Birthday and moving it back to February 22. As inconvenient as that would be, it is vital to the civic life and education of future generations that Washington alone be branded worthy of study. He is unique and should be set apart from all the other presidents.
Washington was a towering figure, standing head and shoulders above most all his contemporaries. Eulogized as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” he, more than any other founder, made us what we became at the height of our exceptionalism. To return there, we need to return him to his place of honor on the calendar and in our hearts.
As undignified as it is unedifying and unnecessary, the vulgar State of the Union circus is again at our throats. The document that the Constitutional Convention sent forth from Philadelphia for ratification in 1787 was just 4,543 words long, but this was 17 too many. America would be a sweeter place if the Framers had not included this laconic provision pertaining to the president: “He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union.”
“Information”? Not exactly.
The Constitution’s mild requirement has become a tiresome exercise in political exhibitionism, the most execrable ceremony in the nation’s civic liturgy, regardless of which party’s president is abusing it. You worship bipartisanship? There is not a dime’s worth of difference between the ways the parties try to milk partisan advantage from this made-for-television political pep rally. Continue reading
by Linda Feldmann
Ju Hong’s voice rang out loud and clear, interrupting the most powerful man in the world.
“You have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country!” the young South Korean man yelled at President Obama during a speech on immigration reform last November in San Francisco. Waving away security guards, Mr. Obama turned and addressed Mr. Hong, himself undocumented. “Actually, I don’t,” the president said. “And that’s why we’re here.”
“We’ve got this Constitution, we’ve got this whole thing about separation of powers,” Obama continued. “So there is no shortcut to politics, and there’s no shortcut to democracy.”
The reality isn’t so simple. Continue reading
Protect and pass on lovingly that shining city on a hill.
by Scott L. Vanatter
The gnawing dullness of Carter’s malaise had pretty well set in by late 1980. Ronald Reagan’s growing, optimistic campaign for the presidency culminated with his clear “Vision for America” described in an election eve address on November 3, 1980.
With a gentle touch, Reagan began, “The election will be over soon, autumn will become winter, this year will fade into next . . . and yet, the decisions we make tomorrow will determine our country’s course through what promises to be one of the most perilous decades in our history.” Continue reading