“Even intellectuals should have learned by now…that
objective rationality is not the default position of the human mind,
much less the bedrock of human affairs.”
— Roy Blount, Jr.
For the duration of my second year in law school, I clerked at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) and spent a summer in England, studying and visiting Her Majesty’s Prisons (HMP). I’ve spent enough time inside federal and commonwealth prisons to appreciate Henry David Thoreau’s jail house answer to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s question about why Thoreau was in jail: “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”
One of my jobs was to assist in Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests – which I found interesting. FOIA letters from prisoners required an answer within a statutory period and each one had to be read carefully to see if it contained a meritorious claim. The chief FOIA officer took ill, so I spent a lot of time with those letters. When he unexpectedly passed away, I temporarily and unofficially took over the position and reviewed all FOIA letters, setting up a system to answer them more efficiently – there were only about two dozen types of claims, so it was fairly easy to quickly categorize them, even in the days before personal computers.
Many of the letters were, as you would expect, drafted by prisoners with little else to do but explore every possible claim. But some were heartbreaking and required serious review. A few were from high profile prisoners, which made you feel for a moment like you had a small fingerprint on history.
One day I was reading a handwritten letter – which most were – that started out with what seemed like a reasonable claim but quickly descended into serpentine rambling alleging that an unidentified flying object had hovered over the prison yard in an attempt to beam her up. It wasn’t the existence of the UFO that concerned me but the timing. If a spaceship had come to earth in broad daylight to a heavily guarded prison, I didn’t think that the first time I would be reading about it would be in a letter from a prisoner many weeks later. Area 51 is one thing, but a prison yard?
When I got to the end of the letter, it was signed by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who, at the time, was serving a life sentence for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford 46 years ago this week. Her defense had been that since the gun was not cocked, she lacked the requisite intent—her decades-long devotion to Charles Manson notwithstanding. Years later, in 2009, she would be released, and now apparently lives a quiet life in upstate New York, on planet earth.
Of all the thousands of letters I read that year, hers is the one I remember with the most clarity. The first half was so sincere and logical and then it just descended into something I am sure she knew to be true but most certainly was not. At the time, in the mid-1980s, I felt sorry for her being a prisoner of a mind that clearly functioned well part of the time, for part of the argument. Today, when reading the news, I often feel like I am reading a treasure trove of Squeaky Fromme letters. Are we really debating some of these issues?
When George Waters of Pink Floyd wrote the classic Dark Side of the Moon lyrics in 1973, he was saying that madness is like the dark side of the moon – always there, but something we never see. Until now.
Since World War II we have faced some remarkably challenging issues, but most seem fairly mundane by today’s standards. As Michigan Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg said in his famous bipartisan support of Harry Truman in 1948, “We must stop politics at the water’s edge.” Over the years, we have disagreed about policy but not our form of government. Today we worry about the very future of the Republic.
Maybe we should have worried all along.
This past week I was joined by Syracuse University Professor Dennis Rasmussen, author of the book Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders, on In House Warrior, the daily podcast I host for the Corporate Counsel Business Journal. In his extensive study of their letters in later life, he has learned that the optimism of the Founding Fathers – including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – migrated to pessimism as they aged. They lost a great deal of confidence in this experiment called democracy.
Those who like to refer to the Founding Fathers as if they were frozen in time miss their ever-expanding views and growing cynicism. Even French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America and an enormous fan of the revolution, would descend into pessimism in later life. “Original intent,” hardly. More like “momentary intent.” The Constitution’s beauty – and its vulnerability – is that it always evolves.
Civilization, like sanity, is on a finer edge than we would like to admit and holding onto order is a heavier burden than we ever imagined.
John Adams worried that we were a people better in war than in peace, prone to being easily spoiled in peacetime and not taking the time to engage in the activities necessary for a healthy Republic.
I worry about that too. Our fear today is not the external threat. As was first reported on an Earth Day poster in 1970 and later made famous in a Pogo cartoon, apparently, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
This is, after all, just a great experiment. Other than the pirates in the seventeenth century, self-rule had never been tried before. Leadership was God’s work, as interpreted by kings, emperors and popes. For the last two and half centuries we have found it the providence of mere mortals.
Despite our reverence, it turns out that the Founding Fathers were just mortals too.
We ended the show with Professor Rasmussen’s hopefulness – that America has been bent many times but never broken. If we have learned anything these last few years it is that America requires, as Barry Goldwater would say, “eternal vigilance.” It also requires listening and gentleness.
Let us not prove the demoralization of Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison right. Let us shine with our greatest selves or we will all end up on the dark side of the moon.
Enjoy the listen.