George Washington, Vladimir Putin, and the Ceding of Power

One of the best classes I took in graduate school was Introduction to Comparative Politics with Professor Jeffrey Winters. Three random questions he asked during that course stuck with me:

1) “How many of you grew up middle class?” (Everybody raised his or her hand, proving his point about the flexibility of that label.)

2) “What are some ideologies that come to your mind?” (After a near-exhaustive list by the students, he pointed out that nobody mentioned capitalism. The point being that the most pervasive ideologies are those we don’t think of as ideologies.)

3) “What is the most unique thing about the American presidency vis-à-vis other global or historical political offices?” (We took our stabs, and then he said, “The fact that anybody willfully steps down from the job of the most powerful person on the planet.”)

It’s true. When viewed from the perspective of international politics, the most unique facet of the American presidency is that the President of the United States peacefully relinquishes power at the end of his term in office. Think about it: one day you’re the most powerful person on earth with the full authority of the world’s most dominant military and strongest economy, and the next day you’re planning to build a library and giving speeches to pharmaceutical conventions. Around the world, you could not wrest even a billionth of that power from the cold dead hands of many nominal presidents, who are willing to alter constitutions, to intimidate foes, and to rig elections to retain their sway. In many cases, leaders would rather see their constituents suffer from war, starvation, and disease than retire to the countryside. To name a few of the better known: Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Il, Bashar al-Assad, Pervez Musharraf, Saddam Hussein, Oliver Cromwell, Napolean Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Nicolae Ceauşescu, Slobodan Milošević, Augusto Pinochet, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak.

This week the world witnessed the re-inauguration of Vladimir Putin as President of the Russian Federation. The 20,000 protesters outside the Kremlin on Monday were not cheering for Putin’s presidential hat trick or for his uncharacteristically short inaugural speech (five minutes). Putin, the diminutive former-KGB agent with ice-blue eyes, never really moved out of the office in the first place, choosing instead, in a nod to democracy fanboys, to let his underling, Dmitry Medvedev rent his furniture in the president’s office. The Russian Constitution prevents a president from serving three consecutive terms, so Putin installed his protégé in the office to keep the chair warm. In the meantime, with Putin heading the Russian Parliament as prime minister, the presidential term of office was lengthened to six years. (Very con-veeeeenient.) Assuming Putin wins reelection in 2018, he will have been President of Russia for two decades. Putin and Medvedev are playing musical chairs with two chairs while holding the needle on the record player. We can only assume that Medvedev will one day borrow the recipe from his boss’s “Babushka Putin’s Soviet-flavored Democracy” cookbook.

There was a time in American history when the President of the United States could have stayed for as long as he pleased. There were no limits in the US Constitution about terms of office (until FDR pushed the issue by defying convention), and many Americans would have been pleased to elect their esteemed former general as “King George.” But President George Washington, ever the reluctant politician, would have nothing of it.

Before he could even be considered for a third term as president, Washington circulated a letter, his “Farewell Address” (1796), informing American citizens that he was resolved “to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made.” (That’s 18th century speak for “I’m not running.”)

He had only remained in the presidency for two terms out of “duty and…deference” to American public opinion, because he had been inclined all along “to return to that retirement from which I had been reluctantly drawn” in the first place. The birth pangs of the country now being past, he reflected, “choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene” and “patriotism does not forbid it.”

Washington’s Farewell Address, coauthored by Alexander Hamilton, then turned its attention to “the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel.” If you’ve never read it, you should. He discusses respect for the Constitution and the preservation of the Union of the states; the indispensable role of religion, virtue, and morality as the fabric of popular government; the slippery slope of faction and partisanship toward despotism; the urgency of public education and the creation of “institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge”; the pitfalls of accumulating a national debt; and the promotion of peace and the avoidance of foreign entanglements. (Wisdom stays relevant.)

Washington looked forward, in his retirement, to “the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.”

For over two centuries, we have benefited from his prudence and forbearance. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Russians.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.

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