No Comment — November 19, 2007, 3:41 pm

Department of Painfully Inappropriate Comparisons

Bush national security advisor Frances Townsend today delivered to President Bush a three-page handwritten resignation letter on White House stationery. At its core was this heart-rending tribute:

In 1937, the playwright Maxwell Anderson wrote of President George Washington: There are some men who lift the age they inhabit, til all men walk on higher ground in their lifetime.

Mr. President, you are such a man.

Comparing George W. to the first president may invite the more sober to some serious comparisons. George Washington served his nation in uniform in two conflicts and was viewed as the obvious candidate to bring the country together and avoid nascent partisanship shortly after the Constitution was adopted. Whatever criticisms may be mounted as to the particulars of his stewardship, he met these expectations: he was a uniter, with a prudential vision, keen to the limitations inherent in the force of arms and determined to avoid foreign entanglements which would undermine the peace and prosperity of his nation.

George Washington believed that America’s credo required that prisoners taken in time of war be treated with dignity and respect. He forbade torture and other acts of abuse. He required that the religious convictions of the prisoners be respected. “Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands,” he wrote in a famous order on January 8, 1777.

George Washington succeeded against all odds, and his success was bolstered by a brave decision to fight the war in a way that reflected the values of a new republic, which put the dignity of the ordinary man first, repudiating the cruelty associated with tyrannical regimes. In this way Washington stood for a great nobility of spirit. As Maxwell Anderson wrote, he did lift the age he inhabited.

And what would George Washington think of a successor who treads with malice on his noble traditions and whose most notable accomplishment has been the destruction of a reputation that generations of Americans sacrificed to achieve on the global stage?

George Washington’s favorite play was Joseph Addison’s “Cato,” and one passage in that play is underscored in Washington’s copy and was quoted by him repeatedly in correspondence—to explain why as a conscientious subject he found it impossible to continue to serve a sovereign he considered to have taken on the attributes of a tyrant:

There live retired; pray for the peace of Rome;
Content thyself to be obscurely good.
When vice prevails, and impious men bear sway,
The post of honour is a private station.

Surely there can be no honor in serving this president. But a resignation letter with the unmistakable signature of a sycophant is in the end appropriate. It speaks truth about the author, and about the nature of her relationship with her erstwhile master.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today