Speaker on the Road to Damascus

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Yesterday I wrote that I thought that Nancy Pelosi's visit to Syria was a bad idea. A reader asked why. For an answer, take a look at the scorching lead editorial in today's Washington Post, entitled "Pratfall in Damascus" and subtitled "Nancy Pelosi's foolish shuttle diplomacy." Last two sentences: "We have found much to criticize in Mr. Bush's military strategy and regional diplomacy. But Ms. Pelosi's attempt to establish a shadow presidency is not only counterproductive, it is foolish."


Washington's Vision

Last night I finished reading Scott W. Berg's Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C. This Berg, by the way, is a different person from A. Scott Berg, who has written prize-winning biographies of Max Perkins, Samuel Goldwyn, and Charles Lindbergh, in addition to a memoir of Katharine Hepburn. Grand Avenues is an interesting biography of Pierre (or Peter) Charles L'Enfant, whose plan for Washington was only incompletely followed. I was struck by one passage describing the ball that was held in Philadelphia on Feb. 21, 1792, to celebrate George Washington's 60th birthday. (Hard to believe that Washington then was younger than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton are today.) The guest list included George and Martha Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander and Eliza Hamilton. Most of the guests, Berg writes, wanted to urge Washington to run for a second term. Here's what caught my eye:

"Five toasts were made and drunk in the president's presence: to the day, to the United States, to the nations in friendship with the United States, to the rights of man, and to the Fourth of July 1776. Washington offered his own salutes to the state of Pennsylvania, to "the memory of those illustrious heroes and patriots who died in the defense of American liberty," and to "the flame of liberty which hath been lighted up in the Western world to blaze and spread till it shall have illuminated every part of the globe."

Philadelphia and its adjoining suburbs of Northern Liberties and Southwark (long since part of the city) had a population of 44,000, according to the 1790 census. The whole United States, according to that census, had just under 4 million people. They were mostly huddled along the Atlantic coastline and just starting to settle the interior; Vermont was admitted to the Union in 1791 and Kentucky would be later in 1792. Yet Washington hoped and, I think we may infer, expected that "the flame of liberty" blazed by the creation of the United States would "illuminate . . . every part of the globe."

We are told by many that the Founders and early leaders of the United States were men of modest ambition and no intention to affect the rest of the world. How wrong that is! We were, in the words of the title of Robert Kagan's splendid history of American foreign policy up through 1898, a "dangerous nation," a nation determined to expand geographically and ambitious to spread what it believed was its universal message of liberty around the world. Kagan's case is persuasive, all the more so since he admits that the picture he gives is not entirely attractive. I read Kagan's book several months ago, but I still felt a frisson when I read the words of Washington quoted above. He would not have been surprised at what we have become.

Steven Stark's Tote Board

I got to know Steven Stark in the 1992 cycle and have always found his columns and books interesting and thought-provoking, even (or especially) when I disagreed with them. Now I'm delighted to learn that he's writing a column for the Boston Phoenix. I'm bookmarking it, and you may want to, as well.