News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Letters

September 23, 2012

FLASHPOINT: Shouldn’t we all be Americans first?

I was first elected to Congress in 1964. That was the year Lyndon Johnson won a full term as president in a landslide. If ever a president had a popular mandate to pursue his goals, it was LBJ in the few years that followed that election.

Yet one of my strongest memories of him is not of a president reveling in partisan supremacy, but of his cautioning against it. Johnson used to love meeting with freshman members of Congress, and after taking office we Democrats who’d been elected along with him had every expectation that he would allow us to bask at the expense of our Republican colleagues. He didn’t. “I’m an American first,” he told us. “And I’m a Democrat second.”

It was a bracing affirmation of a quality essential to national leadership — a firm conviction that the good of the country comes first, even if it runs counter to the interests of one’s political party. I can’t help thinking of it today, in an era when deep, seemingly unbridgeable differences divide Democrats and Republicans, and when these divisions are being stoked by the current presidential campaign.

It has been apparent almost since the beginning that our nation’s welfare rides on how well political leaders balance the needs of the country against their partisan goals. In 1796, preparing to step down from the presidency, George Washington devoted much of his Farewell Address to this question, and to the destructiveness of what he called “the fury of party spirit.”

Surveying with alarm the regional discord and the growing hostility between Federalists and the Republicans that took hold in the final years of his second term, he set out to warn Americans that the very permanency of the Union depended on “a government for the whole.”

Other national leaders understood the sentiment. Patrick Henry’s famous statement, “United we stand, divided we fall” was followed by these words: “Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs.” “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address.

Each of these leaders signaled a bedrock belief in the importance of working together to bridge differences and find common ground because the nation’s welfare demanded it, regardless of the dictates of a party’s extremes.

Now, I’m not urging that we be naive. We’re not going to abolish parties, and we shouldn’t. They help us organize our political choices, define and advocate issues, and make sense of elections.

But if we’re not careful, they can be carried to such an extreme that they divide government, when what we need is unity of government. We need it in foreign affairs, where the more united we are as a nation, the stronger we are. And we need it in domestic policy, where excessive partisanship agitates the people and creates animosities among them. It leads to distrust within Congress, mistrust of Washington, weaker administration of government, and an inability to resolve the problems that press against our future. If you doubt any of this, just look around.

It is extraordinarily difficult to create a government that works together for the common good. One reason most presidents end up talking about the unity of the country and of government is because they, more than most of us, can see the centrifugal forces of region, ethnicity, religion, and ideology at work. They know that there is no magic formula for balancing them all.

But in this era of unforgiving partisanship, it is too easy to forget the importance of trying — and of working hard not to fan the flames of divisiveness. It is crucial to avoid painting the other side as un-American or eager to betray the national interest, just as it is to recognize that we have more in common than we have differences.

Our differences are important; they are part of who we are as a nation. But if we want to overcome our challenges and preserve our greatness, unity is indispensable. The great work of our democracy, as it has been for over 200 years, is learning how to reconcile the two.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

 

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Letters
Latest News
TribStar.com Poll
AP Video
Raw: Thousands Flocking to German Crop Circle Two Women Narrowly Avoid Being Hit by Train Obama Chides House GOP for Pursuing Lawsuit Raw: Otters Enjoy Water Slides at Japan Zoo Raw: Amphibious Landing Practice in Hawaii Crayola Announces Family Attraction in Orlando Broken Water Main Floods UCLA In Virginia, the Rise of a New Space Coast Raw: Plane Lands on New York Highway Raw: Weapons Fire Hits UN School in Gaza Rodents Rampant in Gardens Around Louvre Girl Struck by Plane on Florida Beach Dies Raw: Rocket Launches Into Space With Cargo Ship Six PA Cops Indicted for Robbing Drug Dealers Raw: Obama Eats Ribs in Kansas City Wisc. Twins Celebrate a Century of Laughter Harding Love Letters Now Open to Public Raw: 2 Shells Hit Fuel Tank at Gaza Power Plant Bull Run Comes to Middle America Kerry: Not Worried About Israeli Criticism
NDN Video
Heartwarming 'Batkid Begins' Documentary is Tear-Jerker Orlando Bloom 'Takes a Swing' at Justin Bieber In Ibiza Pitch Invading Morons Cause Chaos - @TheBuzzeronFOX Sadie Doesn't Want Her Brother to Grow Up "Maxim" Hotness! See Jessica Alba's Sizzling Spread Two women barely avoid being hit by train Broken Water Main Floods UCLA Orlando Bloom and Justin Bieber Reportedly Came To Blows In Ibiza Meet the Man Behind Dumb Starbucks Chris Pratt Adorably Surprises Kids at a 'Guardians of the Galaxy' Screening NOW TRENDING: Peyton Manning dancing at practice "The Bachelorette" Makes Her Decision Thieves pick the wrong gas station to rob Golden Sisters on '50 Shades' trailer: 'Look At That Chest!' Staten Island Man's Emotional Dunk Over NYPD Car - @TheBuzzeronFOX GMA: Dog passes out from excitment to see owner Baseball Hall of Famers Inducted 'Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1' Sneak Peek Florida Keys Webcam Captures Turtles Hatching Morgan Freeman Sucks Down Helium on 'Tonight Show'
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.
  • -

     

    March 12, 2010

activity