After reading about a new podcast on the federal judicial listserv, Mike and I started listening to the Washington Post’s podcast called “Presidential.” A journalist with the Washington Post named Lillian Cunningham is posting a podcast each Sunday that addresses the life and the presidency of each of our country’s presidents in order, starting of course with George Washington. “Presidential” features Pulitzer Prize-winning historians like David McCullough and journalists like Bob Woodward. The podcasts are well done, although the production quality is not of the caliber of “Serial,” for example. One of the takeaways for me, so far, relates to the style, decorum, rancor and unseemliness of today’s political climate. Let me tell you why.
George Washington, as we know, was a real leader in the classic sense. He was primarily driven as president by the belief that the new nation must endure above all else. He resisted calls to make himself president for life. He was sensitive to his public image and carefully maintained an image of dignity, honesty and integrity.
John Adams was a pious and puritanical man. He was social and very likeable, once you got to know him. He was a man of modest means, unlike Washington or Jefferson. He never owned a slave as a matter of principal. His wife Abigail felt just as strongly against slavery as Adams did. He believed so firmly in the law that he volunteered to represent three British soldiers who participated in the Boston Massacre, and he won the trial against all odds. He was unapologetically frank and blunt. When Adams (a Federalist) became president, he beat Jefferson (a Republican, later to become the political party we call Democrat) by just three votes. Jefferson was found to be hiring people to defame and besmirch Adams’ reputation to advantage himself in the election. They were mortal enemies for many years until Adams told Jefferson he wanted to bury the hatchet and they became fast friends until the end of their lives which occurred for both of them on July 4, 1826. During his presidency, the Alien Acts were passed by Congress out of a fear of invasion by France. Adams led the view that immigrants, especially the French, could not be trusted and should not be allowed to enter our country.
Thomas Jefferson was a man of contradiction. He wrote the words “all men are created equal,” yet he owned more than 600 slaves during his life. He disliked conflict and looked for areas of mutual agreement and enjoyment. He was a true Renaissance man: an author, an architect, a politician, a scholar. He studied law and wanted to play a large role on the biggest stage, but he was also introverted. He loved adulation and attention but hated public speeches. He loved to write. He was curious and forward thinking. He led the country in the purchase of the Louisiana Territory and he had a deep interest in science, exploration, and international relations. As runner-up to Adams in the presidential election, he became Adams’ vice president as was the process at that time. However, he defeated Adams for Adams’ second term and sought to reverse what he considered to be a government run by the privileged. He called his election the “revolution of 1800.”
James Madison was the principal author of the Constitution, so it’s not surprising that he had a logical, analytical and legal mind. He cobbled together support for passage of the Constitution by promising a Bill of Rights would quickly follow, which he largely wrote (10 of the first 12 amendments passed and became what we know to be the Bill of Rights). He was Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State until he became president. He was our first wartime president, for which he is largely remembered. As we all know, the British landed in Baltimore and headed toward the capitol. The White House was torched by the British and Dolly Madison safeguarded the presidential papers, at the sacrifice of their personal belongings. When soldiers came and insisted she leave, she refused to leave until the large painting of General George Washington was unscrewed from the wall and the canvas removed and placed in the hands of soldiers for safe-keeping. James Madison is best remembered for being lacking in leadership of the executive branch. However, the contra-argument to that characterization is that he carefully constrained the executive branch powers, even during war. Madison demonstrated that a president did not have to become a dictator to lead our country in times of national security crisis and times of war. Although he is generally considered to have been a poor president, he left office very popular. Possibly he wasn’t such a weak president, but rather a president who balanced a republican government that prized individual freedom with responsibility for national security.
I’m sure you must be asking yourself why I’m writing about our Founding Fathers. First, I’d say that they were all educated in the law, which should be important to all of us lawyers. But, more significantly, I am writing this between the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention. Many unexpected events are happening in our state’s Senate and gubernatorial races. Our governor is now a candidate for vice president. No one could have predicted this craziness.
As we have listened to the podcasts, I have felt a peculiar sense of ease about the harsh rhetoric, the unethical behaviors, the abuses of power, the extreme populace views and the shenanigans of our current politicians. I was tempted while writing this to refer to specific current political figures and events, but I resisted. I think the larger message is that our nation has already survived political events and figures that eclipse what we are seeing today.
We think “nothing like this has ever happened,” but it has. History is the best fortune teller. As we see and hear views and actions that shock us, we should remember that this nation has endured so much worse and we have come out of it a better and stronger nation. Anyway, that’s how I am choosing to view the current state of politics in our state and our country.
At the same time, the fighting, the name-calling and the general ugliness of politics serves as in important reminder to us as lawyers. Our profession is full of high-stakes, emotional situations that can (and unfortunately do, in some occasions) steer our behavior to mimic that of some political heavyweights. As we scratch our head over the behavior of those we see on the nightly news, we must do our part to maintain the integrity of the law, treat each other with respect and serve as a far more positive example to our colleagues, our clients and our community.
Do you know a lawyer or judge who consistently serves as that positive example? Nominations are currently being accepted through August 19 for the bar’s Professionalism (attorney) and Silver Gavel (judge) Awards. Submit your nomination, and help us all celebrate the shining lights in our community. The nomination form, which is quick and easy to complete, can be found at indybar.org/profawards. Recipients will be honored at the bar’s Professionalism Luncheon on September 27.