July 25, 2009
Looking to the future through reviving the pastBy David Swindle
What's fast becoming part of my morning routine is playing Internet Eris. I delight in throwing a Golden Apple of Discord out, stepping back, and watching the ideological wars that erupt.
As I peruse through the morning's news and blog posts I come across items that I know will provoke discussion. So I click the "post to facebook" button in my browser, type some innocuous comment like "Interesting" or "Intriguing article" and wait for my motley crew of politically-minded friends across the political spectrum to start commenting and arguing with one another.
Of course I can always predict how these little internet Trojan Wars will go whenever I post something about Governor Sarah Palin. My leftist friends will lob a few insults -- some wittier than others. My Christian conservative and traditionalist Republican friends will mount a fierce defense and talk about how Palin excited them like no politician in recent memory. And my libertarian-conservative friends will lament the direction they see the GOP taking.
How can this conflict be resolved? What can be done to unite the moderates with the base, the libertarians with the social conservatives, the Palin True Believers with the Skeptics?
Answer: sit them down together to watch HBO's "John Adams" miniseries, just recently released on Blu Ray. Based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough's biography, the 501-minute miniseries follows Adams' life from 1770 with his successful defense of the British troops in the Boston Massacre until his death on July 4, 1826 -- the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the country he was so instrumental in founding.
Adams is portrayed by Paul Giamatti, an actor best known for his critically-acclaimed roles in "Sideways," "American Splendor," and "Cinderella Man." Giamatti is paired with Laura Linney ("Mystic River" and "You Can Count on Me") as Abigail Adams. Their touching marriage and friendship forms the anchor of the miniseries, giving it a tender center as the drama of revolution swirls around them. It will also demonstrate the vital role played by the founding mothers -- Abigail was every bit the intellectual equal to her husband.
The push toward the founding of the United States begins in Part II, as Adams assumes a position in the Continental Congress and begins making connections with other key founders, particularly Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson,) General George Washington (David Morse,) and Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane.) We see how Adams' often blunt, forceful nature was often critiqued with Franklin's sense of restrained political diplomacy. We also relish in the chance to see these historical personalities come to life at the hands of some of the best actors working today.
Parts III, IV, and V focus on the war, Adams' role as ambassador to England, and his often frustrating time as Washington's Vice President. This continual personal struggle characterizes the miniseries. It's no wonder that executive producer Tom Hanks saw the cinematic quality of McCullough's book: Adams is a protagonist who must face one challenge and disappointment after another. And we're with him every step of the way, feeling his pain and connecting with him not as some abstract historical figure, but as a human being.
The series concludes with Part VI, "Unnecessary War," which examines Adams' difficult presidency, and Part VII, "Peacefield," a look at his tragic retirement years and reconciliation with Jefferson in the form of their now famous correspondence. By the end of the series one's appreciation for the founders and their formulation of the American Idea is thoroughly reenergized.
The 3-disc set features all seven episodes as well as some bonus features that truly enhance the series. The first is the "Facts are Stubborn Things" feature. Turn it on and throughout each episode boxes will appear on screen to provide additional historical facts to illuminate the series' drama. (The recent Blu Ray release has expanded this feature from the original DVD.)
Second is an absolutely essential making-of featurette and "Painting with Words," a feature devoted to McCullough. Unlike the quality of many DVD extras -- which turn out to be little more than back-patting puff pieces -- these two both yield significant insights on the making of the miniseries.
"John Adams" is essential viewing for conservatives for many reasons. That Adams is an icon to the movement is but one. During a garden conversation between Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin in France in Part V it should be clear who among them modern conservatives would most identify. Jefferson reprimands Adams for not trusting in men to which Adams shoots back, "And you display a dangerous excess of faith in your fellow man, Mr. Jefferson."
More importantly, though, the miniseries allows for an opportunity to reconnect with the founders and their ideas at not just an intellectual level, but an emotional one. It's a chance to remember what our forefathers actually did. And it's endlessly exciting. This thrill -- both an emotional and intellectual one -- can and should be utilized for political purposes.
The Right needs to define Conservatism as the movement that seeks to celebrate the Founders and the American Idea. It needs to make it so when people think "conservative" they don't think of Dick Cheney or George W. Bush, but Adams and Jefferson.
Some on the Right are already pursuing this. Talker Glenn Beck is an example with his recent book Common Sense, which draws inspiration from Thomas Paine, another founding father. Others should follow and begin the process of seeking to educate the populace about who founded our country, why they did it, and what the ideas were that drove them. (Don't assume that people really know this stuff! Yes, it was put in front of us as children and teenagers in school but it needs to be rediscovered with the mind and life experiences of an adult.)
An active debate needs to be engaged going to the root of our Republic: what is the American Idea all about? What did our founders think it was about? How is it enshrined in our founding documents? And how should our government's policies flow from it?
(The Tea Party Movement, with its inspiration drawn from the founding era, would be wise to highlight this aspect of itself even further.)
A key component in this refocusing would be to especially draw on one of the most important facts about the founders: they did not agree about everything. There was a great deal of diversity of ideas. The views of Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and the other founders were often at odds. And these differences were vital in creating the working government that we have today. Conservatives have to be vocal in embracing this tendency. If you embrace the American Idea of freedom and individual liberty then you have a place at the table. Ideological uniformity was not a value of the founders, nor should it be an American value today.
This task -- of reuniting the Conservative Movement -- pursued in this fashion has an additional benefit that's arguably more important: the ability to reengage the Center, and thus eventually recapture political power. A conservatism defined by social issues, or the shrinking of government, or anti-tax sentiment, or a fierce engagement with Islamofascism will always be a conservatism of controversy and division. But a conservatism defined as a celebration of the founding is a vision that can attract the apolitical and the independent center. It's a conservatism that stands for something, not against something.
Republicans can create a coalition of the Right and the Center. And they can do it without abandoning their principles. And the way to begin to get excited about it is by watching "John Adams."