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the father of our country on politics '96 style

August 11, 1996

Yes, we know George Washington died on Dec. 14, 1799. But given the state of politics in 1996, a little wisdom from the Father of our Country might be refreshing. So, in order to do this (we don't believe in channeling, unlike others in Washington), we turned to a scholar. We asked Joyce Appleby, a UCLA history professor, president-elect of the National Historical Society and co-author of "Telling About History": How do you think Washington would look upon politics in his country more than 220 years after its founding? She provided us with the following transcript.

Ms. Amiable Rogers: Mr. President, you can't know how thrilled I am that we were able to make contact with you. You know, I can hardly believe that I am talking to you--I mean, your picture's on the $1 bill and there's the Washington Monument and all that, so it's not like you're a complete stranger. But talking to you, Mr. President, Mr. First President, is the most, I mean, this is an unprecedented interview.

(George Washington nods graciously.)

Ms. R: As you know from my cybercard, I'd really like to talk to you about the election that's going on in the United States right now. It's the 53rd race for the presidency since you were elected for the first time in 1788 under the newly ratified Constitution of the United States.

Los Angeles Times Sunday September 15, 1996 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Joyce Appleby, who "interviewed" George Washington ("The Father of Our Country on Politics '96 Style," Aug. 11), a history professor at UCLA, is president-elect of the American Historical Assn., not the National Historical Society. The correct title of her most recent book is "Telling the Truth About History."

G.W.: Thank you, Ms. Rogers. My memory has not failed me.

Ms. R: I know that you've been able to follow this campaign, and I'd like to know what things you think have changed the most. We study you in our American history classes, so I know that you did not have any opponents when you ran for the presidency.

G.W.: "Race," "ran," these are terms of politics unfamiliar to me. Indeed, it was gratifying to me that the citizens of the United States gave me their unequivocal endorsement. But you must not patronize us, Ms. R. We drafters of the Constitution knew well that our finest leaders would be ardent contenders for positions of honor and trust.

Ms. R: So the idea of multimillion-dollar campaigns that often boil down to wedge issues does not shock you?

G.W.: My dear young woman, only children and fools can be shocked by the machinations of those in power. They have been the undoing of every republic known to history. Still, that the United States has endured through 53 elections I take as a reflection on the wisdom, if you will excuse me, of the founders and the resilience of our descendants.

Ms. R: Then you think this partisan warfare is OK?

G.W.: (Clears his throat.) Hmmm. One ought not to confound acceptance with approval, Ms. Rogers. We, of course, did not imagine the shamefaced acquiescence in parties that you now have, but I shall state to you with utmost candor that factions--the mortal disease of popular governments--erupted in my own administration. I brought into my Cabinet two men of unmatched brilliance and assiduousness. You perhaps have heard of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Quite shockingly--I will be frank--they would contest one with the other on every matter from the proper color of a good glass of port to the probable arrival of the Baltimore post rider. And, as if being president wasn't burdensome enough, Mr. Jefferson had to go and start--with craft--a newspaper for the concerted purpose of criticizing my administration. And we already had one decent journal reporting everything that was needful for the people to know about our government. Still, it behooves me to add that Hamilton did not make it easy for any man to cross him. But I discourse too freely . . . yielding to the siren of reminiscences.

Ms. R: No, no, don't stop. I'd like to know more about this. But let me ask you. Don't you think that a free press is good for a democracy? Doesn't it help the voters make up their minds?

G.W.: My dear young woman, you will excuse me, you sound like Mr. Jefferson. In a well-run government--monarchical or republican--political discussion is best confined to public officials and their circle of friends, men known for their discretion and decorum. Voters need not trouble themselves to "make up their minds." Their representatives will do it for them. It is the duty and responsibility of voters to discern which of the respectable men appearing on their ballot is most likely to make up his mind for the good of all.

Ms. R: But voters have interests. They want their representatives to pass certain laws or have their president defend positions they share.

G.W.: "Interests," as you so boldly put it, Ms. R, are next only to factions the deepest sappers of good government. We pursue our interests in our private dealings. The public interest is the common good, and we must look to the wise, the rich and the able to seek it for the whole.

Ms. R: But what about the average voter, the little guy or the ordinary woman? What about them?

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