After 15 terms in Congress (1977-2006), James Leach taught at Princeton University and the University of Iowa College of Law and served as Chair of the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Leach had graduated with honors from Princeton, received an M.A. from the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins, and did additional graduate studies at the London School of Economics.
Leach holds 15 honorary degrees and decorations from two foreign governments, he is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He formerly served as a trustee of Princeton and president of the largest international association of legislators (Parliamentarians for Global Action). A three-sport athlete in college, he was inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Below is a Leach speech nearly two months ago:
American Political History: From Democratic Constitutionalism to “Big Lie” Suppression and Narcissistic Insurrection
Annual Dinner of the Princeton Club of Chicago
May 13, 2021
Beginning with an anecdote about the first Presidential speech writer, the intent of this essay is to contrast the character traits of the first President of the United States with the most recent occupant of the White House.
Several weeks before George Washington travelled to New York City to take the oath of office, he asked if James Madison would visit Mt. Vernon to review a draft inaugural speech written by an aide. Washington gave Madison the text of the proposed speech and asked if he would comment on the content. After retiring to another room and reviewing the text, Madison reported to Washington that it was “terrible.”
“Why?” asked Washington, and Madison explained it had two significant faults: it was over an hour in length, which he was confident the audience of legislators would consider intolerable; and, most significantly, it failed to reflect the nature of the Constitutional system that had just begun to unfold. It was too regal. Accordingly, Washington asked his fellow Virginian if he would consider presenting a different tact. Madison accepted and returned a few days later with a new draft.
Despite old-fashioned, sometimes convoluted rhetoric, Washington’s First Inaugural Address provides the most relevant perspective to the partisan divisions that have metastasized in recent years.
The Address began with a paragraph only the first President could have written. Indeed, no President or Governor has ever begun an inaugural address as our first President did. What he told the Congress assembled in Federal Hall in New York City was a litany of what he perceived to be his weaknesses: 1) that his capacities were limited by inferior endowments granted him by nature; 2) that he was unpracticed in civil administration; and 3) that he was wracked in his declining years by frequent ravages in his health. In other words, the general who defeated one of the most powerful armies in history suggested that he was inexperienced, lacking in intelligence, and in poor health.
Aside from this extraordinarily modest assessment of his personal capacities, Washington thoughtfully proceeded to stress the need for the newly defined branches of government to work together. The Presidency, he pointed out, had the obligation to “propose” legislative initiatives but the power to legislate was the clear province of Congress. Given the prospect that legislative turmoil could arise, he laid down three “no’s” on how public officials should avoid temptations: 1) there should be “no local prejudices” – i.e., the concerns of the national government embodying the public interest should supersede interest groups and local concerns; 2) there should be “no separate views” – i.e., states should not be allowed to secede; 3) there should be “no party animosities”— i.e., Members of Congress should respect each other.
Continuing to address motivation, Washington instead advised legislators that they should concentrate on following “the immutable demands of private morality.” This singular advice may seem unrealistically esoteric. Actually it may be the most profound advice ever given an elected official. What Washington who uniquely distrusted political parties recommended was, in effect, a singular emphasis on individual judgment driven by moral concerns rather than partisan conformity or self-serving ambition.
As in other democracies, legislatures find themselves changing with the times, sometimes gradually, once-in-a-while abruptly.
When I entered Congress in January, 1977 both parties on Capitol Hill held caucuses every 3 or 4 months where reflective discussions would take place about issues coming before Congress and about elections that might be around the corner. The leadership of both parties as well as the majority of Members generally worked constructively together -– although whichever party held the majority had a tendency to be a bit arrogant at the committee level. By the time I left Congress three decades later, Members of the two legislative bodies, particularly the House of Representatives, had become increasingly disrespectful of the other party and its membership. The Congress had, in effect, become “caucus-ized.”
Party caucuses evolved into frequent closed-door meetings with attitudes more like a football team at half time than an orchestra where musicians play assorted instruments in synch. Instead of statecraft, partisan objectives discussed in caucuses came principally to revolve around how the other side could be derailed rather than how legislation might be improved. Yet the oath of office a public official takes is not a party unity pledge. It is a commitment to uphold and defend the Constitution. Implicitly the oath thus requires each branch of our government to honor separation of powers processes and the individual rights directives in the Bill of Rights that became more expansive as constitutional amendments were adopted and came into effect.
As internal schisms grew, so did Congressional dysfunctionality. With a break down in mutual trust, Members came increasingly to consider their legislative work to be the principal province of the political parties rather than the Congress as a whole. The implicit effect became denial of a constructive role for a full complement of legislators.
Eight years after his delivery of the First Inaugural Address Washington expanded on the concerns he initially laid out in New York by issuing a Farewell Address as he prepared to return to Mt. Vernon. The Farewell Address, which included Madison’s and later Hamilton’s input, was never delivered as a speech. Rather it was published in 1796 as a letter published widely in newspapers throughout the country. Again Washington advised fellow citizens to avoid excessive partisanship and recognize the importance of identifying more with the country than states or cities. Citizens, he warned, should be suspicious of individuals who advocate secession or suggest that the country was too big to be governed within its Constitutional framework.
Whenever the national government subsequently over the years considered intervening militarily on other continents or at sea, historians and social critics traditionally found reason to emphasize Washington’s legendary warning against long-term alliances and policies that might make the country vulnerable to foreign entanglements. What is seldom noted are the deep concerns Washington also registered against domestic intrigues, some of which had foreign influences. Accordingly, in his Farewell Address he carefully alerted his fellow citizens about “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled” leaders of political factions who seek to “subvert the power of the people” in order to “usurp for themselves the reins of government.” One “method of assault,” he noted, would be to obstruct “the execution of the laws” thereby impairing the Constitution.
“The will of the nation” should not be replaced by “the will of a party” that breaches Constitutional obligations, our first President made clear for posterity. Washington’s concern for insurrection probably seemed like an irrelevant footnote amidst the vast challenges of the 20th Century. Yet his warning resounds with relevance in this new millenium. Indeed, no warning to the American public could apply more presciently to the January 6, 2021 insurrection on Capitol Hill than that issued 22 ½ decades earlier by George Washington.
From an early age Washington cogitated on the subject of morality. As a 16 year-old he copied a small treatise composed by French Jesuits in 1595 and translated into English in 1640. The treatise contained 110 rules of civil behavior that he was required to study perhaps as a penmanship as well as ethics assignment. The last civility rule read: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
A similar concern for morality and truth speaking has had deep roots in Heartland communities. In Chicago which my Iowa family had for decades considered the capital of the Middle West, many citizens who immigrated from farms in neighboring states to this fine city had ancestors who would have gone to a rural county fair and listened to an alleged Medicine Man who would stand tall on a soap box and declare that he had an elixir that would cure all the ills a person might have. I mention the snake oil claims of 19th Century rural hucksters because they presage the communication methods of the last President. During his first years in office a major American newspaper (the Washington Post) chronicled 20,000 falsehoods that our former President uttered or tweeted. What this statistic means is that on average President Donald Trump spawned 15 or more falsehoods every day in office.
One may disagree with almost anyone in public life. But shouldn’t we expect probity from those who govern. After all, governance requires trust. Integrity is the heart of our separation of powers system of governance. Habitual lying about small things as well as large issues is disheartening even if a political perspective presented is entertaining. A careful parsing of words indicate that the greatest political umbrages ever propagated in our democracy relate directly to the presumptive assertion the former President made last fall that he intended to maintain “continuity of power” (his phrase) even if absentee ballots establish that another candidate received more votes. Refusing to back down, the President raised the ante by repeatedly claiming that the election had been “stolen.” These preposterous “Big Lie” claims led inexorably to his subsequent egocentric refusal to follow America’s hallowed tradition of peacefully transferring power.
Analogies have to be cautiously made when comparative references are made to the Third Reich. While it would be inappropriate to consider the former President a fascist, historical perspective requires notice of models such as that of authoritarian propagandists like Goebbels who with tragic effect used outdoor rallies to tap the lowest instincts of mankind with perpetration and frequent repetition of egregious lies.
Astonishingly, a political party with a history of concern for law and order has yet to come to grips with the implications of widespread violence and mayhem including the wounding of many and the murder of several law enforcement officers within the citadel of our democracy. It staggers the imagination that the insurrectionist mob that gathered inside the Capitol building came within minutes of assaulting, perhaps assassinating, the Democratic Speaker of the House who was second in line to the Presidency and considered hanging the former Republican Vice President (if he could be found) for refusing to follow the President’s instruction to violate the oath that he, like the President, took to uphold the Constitution.
The end result in the 2020 election is what Donald Trump foreshadowed. In the wake of the chaos of intimidation that he precipitated with the biggest of his lies, the President must be considered a beguiling co-conspirator rather than innocent bystander to the mobocracy that he set in motion on Capitol Hill. The blatant crimes witnessed by millions on television require accountability.
The unanswered question is whether politics in America will return to being an uplifting democratic model or be seen as becoming immersed in a political power game where raw ambition reins. To restore the politics of mutual respect, the obligation of each of us is to do our best to return to the historic values we identify with the greatest generation. It is simply a self-evident historical embarrassment that the “Big Lie” of 2020 was used first as a rationale for the January 6th insurrection and then as a reason in state legislatures controlled by Trump supporters to pass partisan laws to manipulate 2020 election figures and potentially suppress voting in the future.
The irony is that today America has unsurpassed leadership in science, technology, business, the arts, the professions, and every field of academia. Uniquely, it is our political establishment that has let the country down. The business of governance is in need of uplift. The past – from Washington to Lincoln; Franklin Roosevelt to Harry Truman and Barack Obama; Teddy Roosevelt to IKE, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — is loaded with estimable examples of leaders who have made significant contributions to world history.
A review of the past always reveals examples of mistaken steps taken. By comparison, wise and in some cases deeply courageous actions in our history far outweigh actions that we have reason to regret. Nevertheless, what is increasingly evident is that the risks associated with unwise decisions and belligerent politics carry increasingly grave consequences.
The unsettling nature of the Trump Presidency underscores an obligation for citizens to step back, take stock, and recalibrate national goals and ways we can help advance them. At the risk of presumption, my advice to fellow citizens is straight-forward: choose to assess candidates less on party identification and more on whether the policies a candidate advocates are compelling and whether in this age of terrorism and wanton dissemination of weapons of mass destruction, political leaders are capable of facilitating greater mutual respect and tolerance between citizens at home and, wherever possible, friends and even potential foes abroad.
- The oath of office that elected officials are required to take is not a party unity pledge. It is a moral and legal commitment to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
- Process is our most important product. How politics is practiced is often more important than the nature of the policies that unfold.
- If elected, he/she will be a representative of the public at large, not simply those who may have voted for or supported financially him/her.
- If all men and women are created equal, it follows that all views deserve to be respectfully listened to and considered in the making of public policy.
- The national interest must always trump local or interest group concerns.
- The practice of religion must be protected as an individual right but religious tenets of singular faiths should never be legislated in such a way as to bind people who adhere to other faith or ethical tenets.
- The courts and legislatures should re-consider recent campaign finance rulings and recognize that corporatism is not democracy. Mega campaign contributions, foreign or domestic, have no legitimate role in American elections.2
- Polarization is not the American way. Politicians should respect their opponents. They are rivals not enemies.
- Civility matters. We are all connected and rely on each other.
- A hate-free nation must be a common goal.
2 To amplify, there are several institutions within the Federal government that have a tradition of being led by individuals of exceptionally high ability such as the Supreme Court, Federal Reserve, the SEC, State Department, C.I.A., and C.D.C. There is no guarantee, however, that the best and the brightest can’t make mistakes. On the subject of excessive funds in politics, for instance, a decade ago very intelligent individuals on the Supreme Court adopted in a 5 to 4 decision extraordinarily frail logic in the Citizens United ruling. The corporatist decision that eventuated has blatantly propelled new Gilded Age divisions in society. The troubling consequences of this presumptuous ruling are second only in their social effects to the 1857 Dred Scott decision that sanctioned the buying and selling of people of color. George Washington frequently pointed out that the making of our laws and institutions did not mean that they couldn’t be improved. But change to be credible, he would stress, had to be based on legal approaches and methodologies provided in the Constitution – for example, by advancing amendments to the Constitution rather than through insurrection or illegal means. Accordingly, Citizens United can only be changed by reconsideration of the Court or an amendment to the Constitution, the second option deserving compelling public attention if the Court does not reconsider on its own.