Monday, February 18, 2013

Popes and Presidents

Popes and Presidents

The unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict  XVI, the first of its kind in over 600 years, has given rise to all sorts of speculation about the real reasons behind the move, and a glimpse behind the curtain of what hierarchy, coupled with power, can lead to. 

Benedict’s stated reason for resigning was a decline in his physical and mental resources, so much so that he believed he could no longer discharge his duties.  He is 85, his strength has been ebbing, and apparently the Vatican tailors have had difficulty keeping up with a persistent weight loss.  Still, all previous Popes, dating back to 1415, have died in office.  Benedict may have been older and more enfeebled, but there remain questions as to why someone who had the dedication and even the ambition to become Pope (and he must have had it) decided to leave it all so soon after attaining the apotheosis.

The back story, as covered extensively in the media, is a more intriguing one of a Pope grown weary of infighting and a Church struggling with internal politics, the toxic overhang of the pedophile scandals, and efforts to root out corruption.  A 2,000 year-old institution has a deep-rooted culture of how things are done.  Some of this is for good; the Church has a spiritual and pastoral mission.  Some less so; institutions may aspire to a higher calling, but, in the end, they are run by men (mostly) and those men are more prone to human frailties. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is often weak.  Benedict hoped to tame some of the excesses, but in the end, he may have succumbed to Newton’s Laws.  A body in motion tends to stay in motion. Acceleration is produced when a force acts on a mass. The greater the mass (of the object being accelerated) the greater the amount of force needed (to accelerate the object). For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  

If you will excuse the pun, the Catholic Church has a lot of Mass.  The Washington Post writer Jason Horowitz had, in an longer piece  an interesting observation and a quote: “A radical transformation of the culture is unlikely. “We’re talking about people who have given their life to this institution, but at the same time the institution has become their life,” said one senior Vatican official. “Unlike parish priests, who have the personal rewards that come with everyday contact, their lot is not as human. It’s bureaucratic, but it becomes all-consuming.”

He could just have easily been talking about Washington. We are living a great democratic experiment; that people of differing views and economic priorities can sort through them and self-govern.  In the secular world, it is as high an ideal as you can find.   But, the institution of governing, from the elected officials, to the lobbyists and fixers, the party officials, senior bureaucrats, the fundraisers and the bundlers, the pollsters and consultants--all have a vested interest in the status quo of power. Power, to many of them, is more important than good governance.  And they have the mass; it takes a lot of force to change that. 

Of course, Senators and Congressmen are elected.  But, just like the Vatican, in Washington,  fewer and fewer actually spend much time with the people they serve.  Even when they leave office, they find homes influencing or commenting upon the bodies they just left.  “The institution has become their life….their lot is not as human.”

There is, of course, one person who can break this up, just a little.  That would be the President, our secular equivalent of the Pope--without either the infallibility or the reflexive respect.  A President can set the direction.  A President has the bully pulpit.  A President can speak to all of us, for all of us.  A President can be what Flexner called George Washington; “The Indispensible Man.”

Just before Christmas in 1783, George Washington took his leave from his officers, retired from the Army and went home to Mt. Vernon, his Virginia plantation.  He could have had any role he wanted, even King, in the new country he helped create, but he chose to return to “his figs and his vines.”   When told of this intention, his former enemy, King George, said “then he shall be the greatest man in the World.”

Washington knew what he was doing.  The “country” such as it was, wasn’t in the least bit cohesive or ready to be governed.  The Articles of Confederation agreed to by the Continental Congress in 1777 were loose, by design, as each former colony hung tight to its sovereignty.  The country itself was anything but homogeneous; it was a riot of different ethnic groups, different languages, different nationalities, different religions, and different races.  A King with little statutory authority in a discordant kingdom would not be appealing.  Washington would go home, he would see to his plantation and his other assets, he would rejoin his family, and become the Virginia planter and aristocrat that he was before.

This didn’t last all that long.  The Washington we think of today, the man from the Gilbert Stuart painting, old, decorous, wooden, is a sturdy myth didn’t exactly match the flesh.  Washington was decorous, but he had very little Sitzfleisch. He wasn’t the kind of man who sat around very well, and after a few months with the figs and the vines, and the slaves and smokehouses, the livestock, the barns and the mills, he got a little bored.

He also worried that, without a national goal beyond mere survival and the tending to personal economic interests, all that had been won could be lost in just a generation.  He cast his eyes West (in those days, “West” was past the Allegheny Plateau and into the Ohio Valley).  His dream: a great nation needed to expand and the Potomac (which ran through his own plantation) would be the great artery for commerce from the seaboard States to the fertile interior.  Washington himself owned huge tracts of land out there, including virgin forest, bought from afar but based on his own observations dating back to his service during the French and Indian War.

So, on September 1, 1784, this wealthy national hero packed up a few things (including dinner linens and a silver service) and with a small party, left his gracious estate.  He set out through the backwoods, over mountains, through rutted trails, on horseback, on foot, in canoes, past sometimes hostile Indians, snakes (reptilian and human) and through all sorts of tricks that an unforgiving nature can play.  The goal, to find a path to connect the Potomac to the West. 

On his travels, he saw confirmation of his concerns.  The fertile bottom soil that had made Virginia planters rich was now denuded of nutrients by the harsh effects of tobacco cultivation. Forests that had been cleared to make way for farms no longer had the root system to hold the earth in heavy rains.  The country needed the West, needed the animals, the timber, the land.  Without it, there would never be an American Empire, just a loose confederation of States arguing over narrow economic issues and limited resources. 

Washington traveled 680 miles through the absurdly unforgiving terrain, visiting some of his own lands (and getting into arguments with the squatters who stayed there and refused to pay rents) drawing maps, keeping a diary of the smallest details and always planning for a route for the Potomac.  Near the end of his voyage, he sent some of his party ahead, along with most of the remaining supplies (including the tents.)  He rode southeast through the Alleghenies, and crossed Briery Mountain in what is now West Virginia.  There the path ended in an isolated glade, without a house in sight.  It began to pour, and the great man, who had conquered the British, and could have been King himself, huddled on the ground under his cloak, literally in the middle of nowhere, getting soaked.

I thought about this story when reading Thomas Friedman’s “How to Unparalyze Us” in this Sunday’s New York Times.  Friedman finds all the impediments, the impenetrable forest of partisanship, the rutted roads of compromise so easily abandoned, all the barriers that entrenched interests can put up.   But he sees clearly the problem.  People and business needs stability and direction to invest in the future, and they need optimism.  We have to break out of the stalemate of simply fighting over the allocation of finite resources, and move, metaphorically, West.  Congress, locked in inter-party warfare and ever beholden to special interests, can’t do it. The President has to do. Friedman says,  “To have any effect, though, the president can’t just say he is ready for “tough” decisions. He has to lead with his chin and put a concrete, comprehensive package on the table, encompassing three areas. First, new investments that would combine immediate jobs in infrastructure with some long-term growth-enablers like a massive build-out in the nation’s high-speed broadband capabilities. That would have to be married with a long-term fiscal restructuring, written into law, that slows the growth of both Social Security and Medicare entitlements, along with individual and corporate tax reform.”

Personally, I have doubts that “leading with your chin” is a good negotiating strategy.  The GOP has persistently demonstrated that when Obama offers, they take, while denouncing the offer, declaring it a new starting point, and demanding the other half.  But, given that this is President’s Day, perhaps George Washington’s example might not be such a bad one. 

Briery Mountain is now a restricted military area, but I think Mr. Obama could make a few phone calls and get in.  It is only about 200 miles from Washington, just a short hop by helicopter.  Maybe he ought to make the trip, do some exploring, and get rained on a little.

It worked for George Washington.