Monday, September 30, 2013

Partisanship: Past, Present and Future (Updated)

"Put down party spirit; stop the corruption of party elections; legislate not for the next election, but for the next century."
A call for consensus from a frustrated lawmaker on the eve of the expected government shutdown? Or from some columnist, blogger or talking head?
Nope. That was Francis Scott Key's "remedy" for the political viciousness of his era -- from a letter dated Nov. 27, 1813.
The author of "The Star-Spangled Banner" wrote this during the divisive War of 1812. The letter was addressed to Key's quirky friend John Randolph, then a former (and future) congressman from Virginia. Randolph was ousted from his seat in the House of Representatives the year before, after he bucked his party's leadership by opposing the war. Randolph's Dec. 15 reply to Key made it clear that the idea of politics without partisanship was as likely in 1813 as it has proved to be in the 200 years since.
"You will put down party spirit when you put down whisky-drinking," Randolph wrote back.
Randolph was later reelected to his House seat and briefly served in the Senate -- where, by the way, he's credited with helping invent the filibuster. He was known for his witty and scathing oratory. More than Key's plea to legislate "for the next century," Randolph's quips about the politics of their time seem to describe the workings of today's Congress. "We all know our duty better than we discharge it," he once said.
But one Randolph line seems appropriate for this blog -- especially today, with the cable news networks' on-screen clocks counting down the minutes and seconds until the fiscal year officially ends:
"Time is at once the most valuable and the most perishable of all our possessions."

UPDATE: Oct. 1, 2 a.m. ET: Now that the government has officially been closed for two hours another appropriate John Randolph line about governing comes to mind:
"That most delicious of all privileges -- spending other people’s money."
And while we're on the subject of governing (versus politics):
Personal experience has left me with little patience for the "lazy government worker" stereotype. Intractable incompetence is hardly the public sector's exclusive domain -- tonight's events notwithstanding.
I was just looking back at some of my old clips from the government shutdowns back in 1995, when I was still covering science for the Raleigh News & Observer in North Carolina. What I most remembered from that time was the many non-essential government scientists at EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences who ignored official furloughs and went to work anyway to tend their experiments. "I don't care if we're essential or not," one senior scientist told fellow reporter Joe Neff and me. "I like the work." I just Googled that scientist; his official page on the NIEHS website lists him as "retired/special volunteer." I guess he still likes the work.

(Nerdy notes on sources: I first saw the Key quote that starts this post in a passage from Steve Vogel's very good new book about the British innovation of 1814, Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks that Saved the Nation. Vogel is a former Washington Post colleague. The full exchange with Randolph is more thoroughly documented in the second volume of Hugh A. Gakland's The Life of John Randolph of Roanoke. Randolph's most famous quotes are best documented in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, edited by Suzy Platt, which attributes them to the second volume of William Cabell Bruce's John Randolph of Roanoke, 1773-1833. I wish all quote sites cites ["cites" -- HA!] required some form of attribution, since so many frequently cited quotes turn out to be misquotes. That makes me an old-fashioned futurist.)

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