Twice may not be enough


The Texas legislature is required by law to meet for no more than 140 days, every other year. The Texans of yesteryear were operating on the same principle that guided a Chinese official a few years ago. She told a young American college graduate, a niece of mine, when the niece asked in Beijing about the length of her temporary work visa, “You stay a little while, then you go home.”

The New Hampshire legislature meets every year, but only for about six months. The voters in these two states said to their elected representatives, do a little business, then back off.

The idea was that, we know there is public business to be done, but politicians need to be tethered closely to home, not to a state or national government hood. Familiarity with the home hood, and with their constituents, breeds in political leaders some thin vein of humility and a sense that home is where they belong, among neighbors. It resists the delusion that leaving home and sporting about in the society of a wallow of politicians is somehow individually and personally exalting.

There is an ebb and flow in the affairs of mankind. Sometimes the tide is low, but it rises. Sometimes it aims high, but it falls. None of this happens diurnally, as the real tides do, but over time — decades, perhaps, even centuries — as old philosophies wither and new ones bloom, as fashions flaunt themselves, then are disdained, and as politicians devote themselves to mucking everything up and thinking very well of themselves as they do so.

George Washington, for instance, was a high water mark in the affairs of men. The historian Gordon Wood wrote of Washington that he “was the only truly classical hero we have ever had. He was admired as a classical hero in his own lifetime…. And he knew it. He was well aware of his reputation and his fame earned as the commander-in-chief of the American revolutionary forces. The awareness of his heroic stature was crucial to Washington. It affected nearly everything he did for the rest of his life.”

But, then Washington began tweeting to girls he didn’t know, girls who, for their own reasons, thought he was as hot as he thought he was, and he set out to cash in.

Wait a minute. No, Washington didn’t, that was Weiner.

Washington did not become a lobbyist, a corporate board member, an advisor to international investors, or an advisor to casino-minded Indian tribes. He did not behave the way so many Senators and Congressmen and Cabinet secretaries, and ex-Congressional staffers and ex-Presidents do today. Naturally, he didn’t have Twitter and Facebook as allies, but even if he had, his personal goals were otherwise.

“Washington,” according to Wood, “became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. [It apparently had nothing to do with the definition of his abs. Ed.] It was his moral character that set him off from other men. Washington epitomized everything the revolutionary generation prized in its leaders. He had character and was truly a man of virtue…. Many of his actions after 1783 can be understood only in terms of this deep concern for his reputation as a virtuous leader. He was constantly on guard and very sensitive to any criticism.”

And, when his personal star was at its apogee, he retired first from the generalship of the army and then from the presidency. And, he went home to his farm.

Of course, Washington wasn’t perfect. There was that cherry tree business, and his generalship at times was suspect, and there must have been other personal deficiencies. Those teeth, what about those teeth? No sense tweeting a father of our country smile to a Las Vegas dealer slash escort. But, after all, he was modest enough to grasp the significance of his accumulated stature and, humbled by that understanding, smart enough to guard it meticulously.

Weiner, a self-deluded fool, did not descend from Washington, who was a military man and President. Weiner rather descends from the Captain William Kidd model, the low tide of the public man. I’ve told this story before, but the lesson lingers.

A hundred years before Washington’s first attempt at retirement, Captain Kidd, was an occasional neighbor, hanging out in Vineyard Sound, preying on coastwise shipping. Kidd did not set out to be a pirate, but he was not good in the presence of temptation. Piracy was the vocation he took up, after having received a commission from King William III of England to put his military and maritime skills to work protecting the seafarers of the king’s American colonies. Born a Scot in 1654, Captain Kidd served his king, and the governor of Massachusetts Bay and the Barbadoes as well, until he retired to a life of lining his pockets. Kidd sailed from England in the Adventure Galley in 1696, and “Whether it was by his fault that the Adventure Galley slipped from privateering into acts of piracy, or whether, as Kidd alleged, his men forced his hand, has been doubted, but it is probable that he shared the guilt,” Amelia Forbes Emerson writes generously in her privately published Early History of Naushon Island.

However the blame is apportioned, Captain Kidd, having liberally rewarded himself with plunder, sailed for Boston just as the 17th century ended. He knew he was in trouble, that he’d strayed from the straight and narrow, but he anticipated the protection of the governor, who had been instrumental in persuading the king to grant Kidd his commission. The pirate captain planned to cash in a big chip with the governor, who had been on the receiving end of some of Kidd’s loot. But, just in case, along the way Kidd put some plunder ashore on Gardiners Island in Long Island Sound and some more ashore at Tarpaulin Cove. He figured he’d be back after a while to retrieve it all. But, the tide had turned.

This 17th Century politician, courtier, and pirate found himself sent from the Colonies, where he could not be sentenced to death, to England where, in 1701, he could be. Kidd, whose history is recorded by Capt. Charles Johnson in his book entitled “A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates” (Conway Maritime Press, 1998), may have served as a model to those searching for appropriate disincentives to this type of scandalous, self-dealing, political behavior, with which we’ve become so sadly familiar.

“Kidd,” Johnson writes, describing the pirate’s end, “made a speech to the huge crowd which had gathered at Execution Dock.”

(Any occasion with a crowd is the right occasion for a speech, these people think. And a desperate failure, as Weiner demonstrates, is the occasion for a fulsome apology, with press, TV lighting, and tears.)

But, Johnson continues, “The rope broke when he was turned off the scaffold, and he fell to the ground still conscious. He was hanged a second time by being pushed from a ladder leaning against the gallows. His dead body was hung in chains from a gibbet at Tilbury Point in the Thames Estuary.”

How did that old saw go? Keep your friends close and your enemies and political representatives closer, and hang ’em high. I’m paraphrasing.