One of the coolest experiences of my youth was to visit George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon along the Potomac River. In the tiny gift shop, I bought an image of Old George for a buck and kept it in my room for many years. I also bought into the Washington myth, everything from the cherry tree chopping (and owning up to it), to tossing a coin across the river, to his days as a frontier fighter, right up to the iconography of Valley Forge.
My affection for Washington has never waned, even when these American myths and legends were replaced by more factual historical narratives. We were lucky to have George Washington, and we were most lucky to have him for the things he did not do. After two terms of service as President of a new republic, he did not cling to power, or appoint his son the new president, or amend the Constitution, or put opposition candidates in prison — all acts that modern tyrants still fancy from time to time.
Instead, George Washington went home.
There’s a statue of Washington in the Smithsonian that makes him look like an ancient Greek law giver. Lest that imagery seem out of tune, consider how Washington lived out the demands of another great political narrative, that of the citizen soldier, embodied in the Roman legend of one Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. I remember reading about Cincinnatus, who lived around 450 B.C., and vaguely recall a connection to Washington’s legacy.
According to About.com, Cincinnatus “gained fame as a model of Roman virtue. He was a farmer above all, but when called to serve his country he did so well, efficiently, and without question, even though a prolonged stay away from his farm could mean starvation for his family.”
When Rome was threatened by a tribe known as the Aequi, the Senate appointed Cincinnatus as dictator for a period of six months. He left his farm to lead the fight and is said to have defeated the enemy in a period of 16 days. His work completed, he sacrificed the exercise of additional power for a return to his farm and family.
Imagine, if you can, a figure like Gen. Colin Powell coming out of retirement, becoming the Republican nominee for president, winning election, serving a term to help his country out of some great national emergency, and you get some idea of how unlikely it would be for the Cincinnatus myth to play itself out in real terms. (The return of Putin to power in Russia is probably a more realistic scenario.)
With that caveat, I will argue that the ghost of Cincinnatus haunts all important elections in America.
You can see it in the establishment of term limits, the idea that pols won’t go home unless you make them. You can see it in Tea Party rhetoric and action that lines up behind non-incumbents. It appeared in the Democrats’ preference for Barack Obama over the more established Hillary Clinton. It seeps down into the rhetoric of speeches and political ads where “I am not a politician” becomes a good thing, and “Washington establishment” something bad.
It has become the preferred narrative of the Romney camp, the notion that Cadillac Mitt — who won Tuesday’s primary in Michigan, the state where his father was governor — is not a career politician or a Washington insider. No, he is a builder and a fixer, a successful business man driven time and again by civic purpose to save our Olympics, or the State of Massachusetts, or our country at a moment’s notice.
To contend with Romney’s narrative of the outside fixer, rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have struggled to find a way to frame their time since they served in Washington as something akin to a return to the farm. In debates, Gingrich has craftily noted that the main reason Romney is not a political insider is that he keeps running for office and losing to liberals.
Who are you, Citizen Candidate: Mr. Inside or Mr. Outside?
That last distinction is inspired by another fascination of my youth: the great Army football teams of the World War II era. West Point had two great running backs then: Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. Known as Mr. Inside (Blanchard) and Mr. Outside (Davis) for their complementary running skills, they became national heroes. Their prowess on the field of play became a metaphor for American military success on the battlefield.
Remember those nicknames as you witness or cover this political season. No matter how polluted by their political records, candidates and their handlers will try to frame their guy as Mr. Outside, ready to fix everything that’s wrong with Washington and government. Opponents will work as feverishly — and spend millions of dollars doing it — to frame the other guy as Mr. Inside.
This Inside/Outside game is tricky business, and has a shadowy side. From the beginning, Obama’s harshest opponents tried to cast him as a mysterious, dangerous outsider. That is: Not one of us. They used his middle name, Hussein, to emphasize his foreign-ness. They made reference not to his Kansas or Hawaii connections, but to his association with places like Kenya and Indonesia. They still claim he is a European Socialist in his sensibilities. And driving themselves off the cliff, the most rabid critics frame him as a Muslim not a Christian, a man not even born in America, thus constitutionally unqualified to be president.
The president is a young man. What will he do, I wonder, after his term of office, next year or four years from now? My bet is that he will not return to Chicago and his old work as a community organizer. He owns no farm that I know of. It’s pretty hard going from the most powerful man on the planet to retire to, say, a quiet life on a ranch in Texas. Or is it?