Here are a few thoughts about the use of the past from the “first night” of the Republican National Convention.
First, the evening started with the playing of GOP Convention 2008 Video. I thought the video was very well-done, but I found it revealing, and a bit odd, that the first image shown was the cover page of the Federalist Papers. Rather than begin with Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, the first image we saw was a document (actually a collection of documents) that sought to limit the power of the states and establish a stronger centralized government. From a historical perspective this is an odd choice because many in the Republican Party today are strong supporters of states rights over the power of the federal government.
Of course the real lesson here for students of American history is that much of the political philosophy of “federalism” that we hear so much about today looks a lot like the view and beliefs of the “Anti-Federalists“–those in the 1780s who opposed centralized power and the eighteenth-century equivalent of “big government” and favored states rights. (Although you could make an argument for the political philosophy of federalism from Federalist Paper #51). The political philosophy of federalism as it is applied and discussed in today’s politics (John McCain, for example, claims to be a “federalist”) is associated with the idea that decisions about things like religion, marriage, abortion, or anything else not addressed in the Constitution should be made by the states. By celebrating the “Federalist Papers,” the Republican Convention video seems to be celebrating the current political philosophy of federalism more than the historical context in which these documents were written. (I also might add that the Federalist Papers opposed the Bill of Rights, a document which was also exalted in the Republican Video).
Second, Joe Lieberman quoted George Washington’s farewell address on the temptation of placing party spirit over the good of the country. While Lieberman was generally correct in using Washington’s address to buttress his decision to break with party lines and support John McCain, it is important to remember that Washington would not only have condemned “senseless partisanship” but would have condemend the very idea of political parties to begin with.
Third, and finally, today’s New York Times has published an op-ed about the Palin “vetting” by the prolific Garry Wills. The article focuses on the last time a vice presidential candidate was not properly vetted. This was George McGovern’s 1972 selection of Thomas Eagleton, a first term Missouri senator who was removed from the ticket when it was learned he had received electroshock therapy for depression and nervous exhaustion. (He was replaced with Sargent Shriver). Wills message: There are too many skeletons in Palin’s closet that the McCain campaign failed to uncover or investigate thoroughly and as a result Palin “should withdraw before she is nominated and let Senator McCain turn again to one of his more experienced options.” I doubt this will happen, but Wills’s remains provocative.