The Last Action Hero and the First PresidentRoundup
tags: George Washington, Arnold Schwarzenegger
Craig Bruce Smith is a historian and the author of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolutionary Era.
In the hurricane of news this month—a riot in the Capitol last week, a presidential impeachment this week, an inauguration next week, with a Senate trial expected to follow—we should not overlook a moment of sensible calm asking us to heed America’s founding ideals. In a video released over the weekend that has already had more than 37 million views, one of our nation’s most famous immigrants offered a “a few words to my fellow Americans.” Sitting at a desk and framed by the U.S. and California flags, Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “We need to look past ourselves, our parties, and disagreements, and put our democracy first.”
These words could have been spoken by George Washington. Just with a different accent.
Two hundred and twenty-five years ago, President Washington announced that he would not seek a third term and would instead preside over an unprecedented and world-defining peaceful transition of power. There would be no lifetime rule, dictatorship, or inherited monarchy in America. But before he stepped down, he offered parting wisdom in his Farewell Address, a written statement first published on September 19, 1796. “Let me now take a more comprehensive view,” Washington said, “and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.”
“The will of a party,” Washington warned, in words Schwarzenegger would echo, can take on “an artificial and extraordinary force,” becoming “destructive” and overriding the “will of the nation.”
Schwarzenegger, fresh off his commendable public service promoting COVID-19 safety and thirty years after the release of his highest-grossing film, Terminator 2, has Washington’s Farewell Address on his mind these days. In a January 5 Economist article, he explicitly cited Washington’s warnings about “the spirit of revenge” that is “natural” to partisanship. A day later that warning came true. The mob of pro-Trump supporters who desecrated the halls of the U.S. Capitol, Schwarzenegger said in his video, “trampled the very principles on which our country was founded.”
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