Senator Flake

The former Senator from Arizona speaking at the Union League Club of Chicago's George Washington's Birthday Celebration.
Over the weekend, I went to hear Senator Jeff Flake at the Union League Club. Every February, the club hosts a big dinner to celebrate George Washington’s birthday and invites a guest speaker. This year, Jeff Flake of Arizona spoke. This was the 131st first year the dinner was held.

I believe that whenever one has a chance to see a major public figure, one should take the opportunity.   Flake has just left the Senate after one term but he is definitely presidential material, and I will be surprised if he fails to run for president one day. He faces one major impediment to his ambition, however: at the moment he is very nearly a man without a party.

Flake comes across as a very poised, articulate, and thoughtful conservative. He describes himself as having fallen in love with politics at an early age. He served twelve years in the House of Representatives prior to his elevation to the Senate. Then along came Trump, the game changer who has cast Flake into a sea of difficulty.  Flake is one of the few Republicans in Congress to have broken openly with the president instead of going along with him in a sheepish and cowardly way.

Most Republican senators have tried to “find common ground” with the president as though doing so does not compromise their dignity. They have chosen to collaborate with him, even though it cheapens them by association. Trump treats the Senate in a high-handed and condescending manner. The Republican-led Senate has permitted itself to be humiliated. Republican senators endure Trump for the sake of party domination.

In the rare cases when the Republican majority finds that it cannot comply with Trump, its opposition to the president is tacit, as was true last week when Trump was shut out of the budget negotiations and told afterward that he must accept the negotiated deal. By and large, Republican senators have watched silently, however, as Trump has destroyed the soul of the “Grand Old Party.” It’s a peculiar situation, because it’s not clear whether most leading Republicans genuinely endorse Trump’s ideas. What they see is that Trump is charismatic and that his charisma is pumping up Republican power. Perhaps they believe they can outlast Trump, then return to what they were before.

Jeff Flake has no such illusions. He cannot stand with a president whose followers chant, “Lock her up.” During Flake’s tenure in Congress, he witnessed the gradual erosion of comity on Capitol Hill. When he began, it was still the custom of senators and representatives to move their families to Washington. Political differences tended to evaporate when members on either side of the aisle knew one another’s children by name. On weekends, representatives worshipped together and watched their kids play sports, developing friendships that softened the edges of partisan conflict.

That changed, Flake recalled, with Newt Gingrich’s speakership.  Gingrich told House Republicans to leave their families at home, because, on the weekends, he expected them to be back in their districts campaigning. As a result, the US now has “a commuter Congress,” with members flying in to work a few days a week.

Reluctant to treat Democrats as “the enemy” and unwilling to stand with the president, Flake has learned that Republicans in his state increasingly demand this very thing. Whereas “the economy” or “jobs” used to top the list of Republican voters’ concerns, “Where do you stand on Trump?” has displaced them, according to recent polls. Out of sync with both his base and GOP leadership, Flake saw re-election was futile.  He left the Senate last month.  In retirement, he seems to have embraced the philosophy of the first president we had gathered to honor. For, as that great man once observed,

If, to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair. The rest is in the hands of God.

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George & Martha Washington’s Christmas Pye

Virginia dining room from the Founding era (Thorne miniature)

In the Thorne Rooms of the Art Institute is a placard describing a special pie that George and Martha Washington are thought to have served on Christmas at Mount Vernon.

First make a good standing crust, let the wall and bottom be very thick; bone a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon. Season them all very well, take half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, and half an ounce of black pepper, all beat fine together, two large spoonfuls of salt, and then mix them together. Open the fowls all down the back, and bone them; first the pigeon, then the partridge, cover them; then the fowl, then the goose, and then the turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the crust, so as it will look only like a whole turkey; then have a hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean cloth. Cut it to pieces; that is joint it; season it and lay it as close as you can on one side; on the other side woodcocks, moor game, and what sort of wild fowl you can get. Season them well, and lay them close; put at least four pounds of butter into the pie, then lay on your lid, which must be a very thick one, and let it be well baked. It must have a very hot over, and will take at least four hours.

I puzzled to imagine the result of this outrageous recipe: a stew in a deep pot, swimming in butter?  Weren’t the Washingtons cooking up a food-borne disease?  The realities of their experience, though, turn out to have been far more pleasant and sophisticated; to an informed sensibility, the virtues of their Christmas Pie were considerable indeed.

Benjamin Latrobe, "Mount Vernon with the Washington family on the terrace" (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In November 1786, Washington’s old friend and military aide, David Humphreys, wrote the retired general regretting that he would “not have the felicity of eating Christmas Pie at Mount Vernon.”  Afterward, Washington replied that he could have used Humphrey’s “aid in the Attack of Christmas Pyes . . . on which all the company . . . were hardly able to make an impression.”

Ivan Day’s research into food history illuminates what the Washingtons’ Christmas pie looked like and how the dish was actually consumed.  The recipe above, meant to be eaten cold, was for a standing Yorkshire pie well known throughout Georgian England.  According to an interview Day gave to The Hill, the crust served only as a standing vessel for the meats and was not meant to be eaten.  Instead, the crust and the thick seal of butter encased the meat, preserving it air-tight, not just for days but weeks.  The main ingredients, spiced and tightly packed inside one another, created concentric circles in the cooked pie when sliced.  When the pie was ready to be served, the top was broken off and guests feasted on the terrine-like concoction resting inside.  (For representative pictures, click here, here, or here.)

Raised pies (Illustration from Mrs Beeton's)

Victorian-era illustration featuring meat and game pies.

The Yorkshire pie was a towering work of gastronomy and ‘a universal favourite at Christmas time.’  Making such a pie demanded time, ample resources, and patience, but the result was a showy presentation of the choicest meat delicacies, baked in a fashion that sealed in their flavors.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the Yorkshire Christmas pie, which remained popular for at least a century, became a calling card of the powerful and wealthy.  The Washingtons’ recipe, from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London: 1784), explains that

This crust will take a bushel of flour. . . . These pies are often sent to London in a box, as presents; therefore the walls of the crust must be well-built.

The Washingtons’ pie was not just massive and delicious, but a sign of their means and their ability to bestow largesse on other people.  Around the same time, the future English abolitionist William Wilberforce was arriving at a similar understanding.  Then a student at Cambridge, “he was truly hospitable,” for “there was always a great Yorkshire pie in his rooms, and all were welcome to it,” according to R. V. Taylor, in his Yorkshire Anecdotes, or, Remarkable incidents in the lives of celebrated Yorkshire men and women.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Hello, February

Ice skating; The Lincoln Memorial in the background, Washington, DC (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

February is seldom as fun as I hope it will be.  I dream of escaping to the sledding hill or spending an afternoon out ice-skating, but instead I end up trapped at my desk, thinking of dead presidents, the white and black races, and slavery.

Its calendar page filled with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, the birth and death dates of Frederick Douglass, and the observance of Black History Month, February is a minefield of historic associations, of significance buried but waiting to explode.  Continue reading

On John Kerry’s eerie resemblance to George Washington

John Kerry 1795, after Gilbert Stuart © 2013 Susan Barsy

Have you noticed that, as John Kerry has aged, he looks a lot like George Washington?

His similarity to the great Founding Father and Commander-in-Chief is unnerving.  It’s as though the ghost of Washington is haunting us, reminding us of his legacy, just in time for Halloween.  When Secretary Kerry appears on television, he unwittingly channels the ghost of Washington.  It’s cautionary.

The ghost prompts the question, “What would George Washington think of our actions overseas?”  Would he have condoned the President’s hawkish determination to punish Syria with military force for its use of chemical weapons against its people?  Would he have applauded the US intelligence forces’ capture of a suspected terrorist in the Libyan capital?  More generally, would George Washington, if alive in our time, be inclined toward intervention, or isolation?

The value of these conjectural questions lies in reminding us of the intimate connection between internal strength and influence abroad.  We need a fixed yardstick against which to measure our global acts and ambitions, which are more over-reaching and morally dubious than they were back in Revolutionary days.  Conscious of enjoying military and technological advantages and relatively ample means, the US frequently intervenes just because it can.  Because it can, our government has been spying on Angela Merkel, of all people.

Alternately, our government follows a schoolyard logic: if Johnny Johnson jumps off a bridge, then so will we.  If our strength relative to other nations continues to supply an irresistible rationale for scatter-shot decisions, soon that strength will be gone; what remains of our moral integrity will vanish, too.

When the United States were weaker, they had little choice but to be savvy about what fights they took on.  In George Washington’s time, a time of global conflict if ever there was one, even the most powerful Americans understood the truly vital importance of focusing on ‘within’ while exercising caution abroad.  While General Washington (1732-1799) was the preeminent ‘hawk’ of his day, he was also a prime founder of the powerful civic institutions that, in their fruition, secured broad national safety and prosperity.

The blessings of that peace were hard-won.  The North America of Washington’s lifetime was shaped by the great global conflict between France and Britain.  As a youth, Washington was one of the earliest participants in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), an expensive multinational conflict waged on the borders of the American colonies that lasted nine years. He then reluctantly led the colonial Revolutionary Army in its War of Independence against the British, a wearisome duty that absorbed him for another eight years’ time (1775-1783).

Given the tortuous path the young nation followed toward establishing a viable government under the US Constitution, George Washington was relatively old by the time he became the nation’s first president.  He governed those eight years with a consciousness of the nation’s fragility, respecting the preciousness of what it had achieved.

Little wonder that, on leaving office, Washington famously warned the nation to avoid the dangers of “foreign entanglements.”  Americans still faced the daunting challenge of growing together as a Union.  The last thing they needed was to become enmeshed in the machinations of world’s great powers.  Violent conflict throughout Europe marked the final years of Washington’s presidency.  Napoleon’s star had begun to rise. The year Washington died, the long Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) were just beginning.  Protecting ourselves from the debilitating snares of global conflict was an important early contributor to our national growth, our 1812 war with England notwithstanding.

There is much to be said for shaping a foreign policy as creditable to a puny government as to one that’s strong.  Sadly, Kerry’s resemblance to Washington is only skin-deep, and President Obama doesn’t resemble George Washington at all.

© 2013 susanbarsy.com

Presidential Selection

Washington Death Mask

Halloween is just around the corner, when, by tradition, all souls departed return to their earthly haunts for a night.

Were the spirits of our Founding Fathers to be among them, I wager that no change in our political system would astonish them more than the monstrous process we rely on to fill the presidency.

Certainly, the bitter and protracted process we have today bears little resemblance to the simple one that twice elevated our first executive, George Washington, to the post.  Washington, whose spotless reputation helped reassure Americans that the novel office of a civilian executive could be filled responsibly, was the near-unanimous choice of the small group of electors, appointed by the state legislatures, who gathered to settle the issue in 1789 and again in 1792.  He did not campaign for the office, and no promises were made.

Washington, as famous for his ardent federalism as for his total abhorrence of political parties, would be horrified at the prevailing partisan strife and competition.  He would find appalling the careerism that prompts unfit and unlikely candidates to vie for eminence.  He would be chagrined to learn that our national energies, which should be devoted to the arduous work of governing, are instead being diverted into a vitiating quest for party supremacy, which dominates a greater part of the calendar with each election cycle.

Above all, Washington would revile the self-aggrandizing impulse that, as it continues unchecked, erodes the vitality of a great government whose genius rests on interdependency.

Image: Life mask of George Washington, from this source.