The House We Live In
With the 4th of July one week ahead and having spent last weekend in Washington, DC, writing a column to reflect on our country just seemed a natural. It is hard to come back from our Nation’s Capital and not be inspired.
Despite the seemingly endless (and over-hyped) fights in Congress, the splendor of the buildings, the history oozing from every corner of every room inspires even the most cynical among us.
High on a hill across the Potomac at the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier, even the youngest children there grasped the meaning of the 7 p.m. changing of the guard. Watching an honored tradition unchanged for decades I noticed the dome of the Capitol and the Jefferson Memorial in the distance. It was not lost on me that everything across the river was only possible by the sacrifices of those resting on the quiet green hills of Arlington National Cemetery.
I have always enjoyed history, reading books about or written by United States Presidents good and bad. The more we look at history, we realize that in understanding the past we can recognize patterns in our present and future.
Think the contentiousness in Congress is new? Lyndon Johnson faced the same problems — maybe even worse. When Johnson was trying to get civil rights legislation passed he faced an actual filibuster (not just a threat of one) with Senators talking endlessly for nearly three months.
Johnson had this to say about Congress, “In time, the underlying consensus will have to emerge. So long as men try conscientiously to resolve their differences by negotiation, so long as they follow the prophet Isaiah to 'come now let us reason together' there is always a chance.”
Rewind history and you’ll see what Thomas Jefferson had to say about Washington, D.C., “Here are so many wants, so many affections and passions engaged, so varying in their interests and objects, that no one can be conciliated without revolting others.”
That seems to be the same thing we are now seeing in our national governance. Call it human nature, call it grandstanding or energizing your party’s base, call it whatever you want. Stubborn adherence to absolutes by extremes on both sides remains counter-productive but is hardly new.
Republican Sen. Olympia Snow recently said, “I am a republican who is prepared to compromise — and contrary to current misperceptions, compromise is not a capitulation of one’s principles.”
That statement can be repeated by people on either side of the aisle.
As I walked through the Library of Congress and The National Archives I felt our shared history. I reflected on a country that no matter how divided the extreme positions on either side suggest we may be, there is one fact that comes back to us.
This nation is our house, reminding me of the Frank Sinatra song “The House I Live In.”
What is America to me
A name, a map, or a flag I see
A certain word, democracy
What is America to me
The house I live in
A plot of earth, a street
The grocer and the butcher
And the people that I meet
The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races and religions
That's America to me
All Americans live in this same house, this special piece of earth insuring freedom, security and liberty better than any other place we know. Certainly it is not perfect, for as anything undertaken by humanity we know we will err. In writing the Constitution the giants of that time recognized they were trying to form “a more perfect union” — not the perfect union.
Even Jefferson had his doubts as he followed the unfolding constitutional drafting process, “There are indeed some faults which revolted me a good deal in the first moment: but we must be contented to travel on towards perfection, step by step.”
Timeless leaders of all parties have recognized the need for compromise and consensus to advance our nation in a positive direction. The idealized fog of memory allows the myths of both sides’ idols to crystalize into “fact”, but further study of history uncovers a deeper truth. No one ever got all they wanted, or refused to budge on anything and won every time.
The great communicator, President Ronald Reagan, was also a confident man of compromise. Craig Fuller, Reagan’s assistant to the president for cabinet affairs said this of his boss, “He also liked to see people around him work towards an acceptable compromise. Both words are important. Acceptable in a sense that it met his criteria, narrow as they might be. Compromise in that nobody got exactly what they wanted, but nobody lost.”
Over two centuries later Jefferson’s words still ring true. Through the legislative process, the judicial review and the executive branch’s implementation of law we remain a nation still traveling step by step towards perfection. To advance we must willingly take steps toward each other, towards unity and continue the journey begun in Philadelphia in July of 1776.