John Avlon - What "Washington's Farewell" Predicted About Politics - Extended Interview

Extended - June 6, 2017 - John Avlon 06/06/2017 Views: 32,136

John Avlon discusses his book "Washington's Farewell," which lays out how George Washington warned against hyperpartisanship and false patriotism. (6:11)

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John Avlon.

-♪ -(cheering, applause)

All right.

-Welcome to the show.-Great to be here.

Uh, let's getstraight into the book,

because there are few booksthat have been written

around this timethat connect completely

with an ideaof what's happening in America.

Not talking aboutwhat's actually happening,

but the idea.

George Washington'sfarewell address.

That's what this book about.

Uh, why was this addressso important?

This was the most famouscivic scripture

in American historyfor our first 150 years.

It's a memo writtenby the first Founding Father

as he is voluntarilyleaving power--

something we take for granted,

-but was a revolutionary actthen. -Right.

And he decided to write aboutthe forces he felt could destroy

our democratic republic,

and he addressed itto future generations, to us.

And chief among themwere hyperpartisanship,

excessive debt,and foreign wars.

So we're playingwith fire here, folks.

And George Washington called it.

Let-Let's take a step backto the, uh,

stepping down part.

People do take for granted

that leaders leave power, right?

-I remember, in South Africa,with Nelson Mandela... -Right.

...he could have easily stayed.

He was super friendly,everyone loved him,

and if he was like,"I'm not going,"

people would have been like...

people would have been like,"Yeah. Yeah, we don't mind."

But it really takes a certaintype of leader to notice

and understandthat power is corrupting.

-That's right. -All power,and it-it comes with

a certain respin...uh, sense of responsibility.

When you look at this farewell,

why do you think GeorgeWashington chose to leave?

Do you think it was becausehe didn't trust himself

or he didn't trust leadersthat would be following him?

It's a great question,and it's a little bit of both.

He actually wasincredibly insecure

about his own abilityto serve as a statesman.

He knew he could be a general,

but he-he was notthe most brilliant

of all the Founding Fathers,but he was a deeply wise man.

And... and remember,all other revolutions

went the same way.

The-the generalwho kicked out the tyrant

-became a tyrant himself.-Uh-huh.

And so people thoughtthat might happen.

But he was consciouslysetting an example

by stepping down from power.

And Thomas Jefferson--who he fought with a lot--

wrote later, he said,"The moderation and virtue

of a single character"--George Washington--

"probably stopped thisrevolutionar... revolution

"from being subvertedby the very liberty

it was supposed to establish."

And-and that had been the storyof all revolutions

up to that point.

Talking in the book,you notice a lot of themes

that really seem to have beenforgotten in today's America.

One of the thingsGeorge Washington spoke about,

-dominantly, washyperpartisanship. -Yeah.

Beware of the partisanship

that will lead, essentially,

to the destructionof a democracy.

How is it that he was,essentially,

a nonpartisan president?

Well, he-he was an independent.

He was not a member of a party,as a matter of principle.

His reading of history--and this is... this is key--

the Founding Fathers wroteour Constitution

with the idea of historyin mind.

They were studying how ancientGreek and Roman republics

-had failed before them. And oneof the lessons was -Right.

is parties would take over.They would push a narrow,

self-interested agendathat would block

the national interest. Andwhat Washington warned about was

is these partieswould create a deadlock

to dysfunctional democracy,and citizens would become

so frustratedby the inefficiency

and the ineffectivenessthat it could open the door

to a demagoguewith authoritarian ambitions.

That's a story as oldas history.

That's what Washingtonwarned us about.

And that's why we needto keep history in mind.

You know, perspective'sthe thing we have least of

in our politics. But theFounding Fathers were warning us

about these forcesthat we're playing with.

And we need to be wide-eyedabout that.

Well, I mean, that has happened,

so is there anything...

is there anything that peoplecan look to in the speech

that gives us some sortof indication

of how to combat this?Is there any way of going back?

If George Washingtontime-traveled to America now,

-America in 2017, do you thinkhe would -He'd be freaked out.

be able to survive America'scurrent political climate?

You know, I-I think, you know,he-he really tried to resist

the rise of political parties,

but he was a manin-in psychic pain

as he wrote this, because he saw

his two most talented surrogatesons, Alexander Hamilton,

who he wrotethe farewell address with,

and Jefferson schemingto create political parties.

He was trying to resist it.He probably...

He realized that the growth ofparties was perhaps inevitable,

but he really recognized thatwe needed to hold them in check.

And we have utterly failedto do that.

The thing about Washingtonand the farewell address is

he didn't just point outthe dangers--

he was too much a man of actionfor that--

-he pointed out solutionsthat we can repair to. -Right.

So he talked aboutthe importance of immigration

in renewing a society- you know,citizens by birth or choice.

-Right.-He talked about the importance

and the strengthof political moderation,

something we've forgotten.

The importance of religiouspluralism and tolerance.

And also the importanceof education.

He talked about the importanceof enlightened opinion

in a self-governing society.

And I think that's oneof the real lessons

that we can take away from thesituation we're in right now.

Democracy is not a given.

Its ultimate backstopis we the people.

And we need to educate ourselvesabout our democracy

and get involved. We need civiceducation to be more emphasized.

We need to take journalismunder seriously...

which is what I do every day,

as part of the structurethat holds power in check.

-Right.-We all need to get involved.

And I think the core wisdomWashington had,

which is somethingthat we could remember,

is that our independenceas a nation

is inseparable fromour interdependence as a people.

That's a profound truth,but it's forgotten,

because there's alwayssome folks selling snake oil,

trying to say,"I'm a better American.

"I'm a better representativeof the Founding Fathers

because I want to divide usinto us against them."

But that's always beenthe demagogue's calling card.

And Washington calledthose folks pretend patriots,

because they would try to riseto power on division,

rather than trying to unite us.

And-and that's just oneof the fundamental fault lines

in American politics thatwe need to confront clear-eyed.

You know, I never thoughtI would say this,

but you just made me wantto go back

to the timeof George Washington.

I wouldn't stay, but I'd wantto see it for myself.

-They got work to do. -Thank youso much for coming to the show.

A new generation.

Washington's Farewell is available now.

John Avlon, everybody.

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