In the peroration of his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Clinton assured us that "we are keeping alive what George Washington called 'the sacred fire of liberty.'" He was talking about recent efforts to preserve America's historical treasures, and in particular the flag over Fort McHenry that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner" in 1814.
Historical preservation is commendable. But the president must have gleaned the Washington quote from Bartlett's Familiar Quotations that is, from out of its context because in its context it is hard to imagine a more inappropriate quote for him to employ.
But more about that later. First, in the spirit of historical piety that Clinton's peroration invoked, let us compare Tuesday's speech with the very first State of the Union message, delivered to Congress by President Washington on January 8, 1790.
First, nearly a third of Washington's State of the Union was devoted to foreign relations and national defense, including the memorable maxim that "To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace." Clinton, on the other hand, spent only a tenth of his speech on foreign relations, with minimal reference to national defense.
Most amazing of all was Clinton's silence on the issue of America's lack of a missile defense. His administration's policy up to now has been to abide by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, in which the U.S. and the now-defunct Soviet Union agreed to keep their territories and peoples defenseless against each other's missiles as a mutual deterrent. But last July, a bipartisan commission headed by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reported that America faces a rapidly evolving threat from missile-born nuclear and biological payloads from numerous foreign sources. By Washington's maxim, but apparently not Clinton's, this should be our most urgent national concern.
Second, Washington's discussion of the government's domestic policy was relatively brief. And in addressing goals such as establishing uniform weights and measures and building roads, his speech reflected the view of government's role that prevailed until the 1960s: to provide the conditions for a minimally-regulated private economy to create wealth and increase prosperity through the energy and initiative of free individuals. In Clinton's exponentially longer list of goals further regulating private sector wages and benefits, redistributing wealth to farmers and manufacturers, etc. energy and initiative become attributes of government. By one count, Clinton, who announced just a few State of the Unions ago that "the era of big government is over," proposed on Tuesday over a dozen new federal agencies.
Third, although Washington and Clinton both proclaimed the high importance of public education, all similarities end there. Clinton set basic skill goals, such as ensuring that high school graduates can read, and proposed means for achieving them that amount to a nationalization of primary and secondary education. Washington took it for granted that locally administered schools would succeed in teaching basic skills. His concern as president was that they cultivate virtues like self-restraint and self-reliance, so that American citizens would continue to respect and support democracy. Among the ways that knowledge contributes to the "security of a free constitution," Washington wrote, is by "teaching the people…to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness cherishing the first, avoiding the last; and uniting a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments [on rights], with an inviolable respect for the laws."
For obvious reasons, except indirectly in a vague and fleeting endorsement of classroom discipline, Clinton didn't go near this theme. Or at least he didn't intend to which brings us back to his inappropriate quote from Washington.
The phrase "the sacred fire of liberty" is from Washington's First Inaugural. Its context is an argument that "the foundations of our national policy" should be "laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality."
"I dwell on this prospect," Washington concluded, "with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my country can inspire: since there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity: since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the external rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained: and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."
"Inappropriate" doesn't describe it. President Clinton's quotation of Washington was self-incriminating. He'd better hope the attending Senators didn't notice.