The 5th annual message by President George Washington—the one that came right after his re-election to the presidency—took up with the Congress no fewer than eight distinct subjects. They included two wars, debts owed between the states and the federal government, a loan from Holland, the Bank of the United States, and the federal debt, expenses and revenues.
The 5th State of the Union address by William Jefferson Clinton—the first that has come after his reelection to the presidency—came on Tuesday night. It began with a call for smaller government and a balanced budget. This followed nicely upon Clinton's historic statement in last year's State of the Union address that "the era of big government is over." ("But we can't go back to the era of fending for yourself."). This year he backed it up with a reference to the ideas of Vice-President Gore, who has been reengineering our government into the streamlined thing we have today.
That out of the way, the president then turned to the substance of the speech, which was to declare a sort of war. "We face no imminent threat, but we do have an enemy—the enemy of our time is inaction." Facing "a challenge as great as any in our peacetime history," we had better get busy. The president brought a To-do list.
Bill Clinton had more items on his list than exist on George Washington's. I counted up to around 33 and gave up when I reached "for parents to begin immediately talking, singing, even reading to their infants." I had persevered already through "every 12-year old must be able to log onto the Internet"; "every state should test every 4th grader in reading"; and we must "restore basic health and disability benefits to immigrants." Still to come were AIDS research, family leave, health care for everybody else (not the immigrants, they got theirs up above), and two days in the hospital for mastectomy patients.
The first part of the speech echoes that older tradition, the one that came before the big government that Bill Clinton has exterminated. The notion of smaller government raises the notion of limited government, government that does only certain things. Limited government, as George Washington upheld it, is a little different than smaller government, as Bill Clinton upholds it. Smaller government does less (well, maybe it does; hard to add up the numbers) because it does not seem advisable to do more-or because it seems advisable to say that it does less. Limited government does less, because it ought not and it may not do more.
George Washington made a record of a personal kind on the issue of limited government. He was the man most honored in his generation, and he used the respect he commanded to light the way to republican rule. At the end of the Revolutionary War, soldiers agitated for him to be King. These were the soldiers who were busy defeating the greatest military power on earth. They had the force to work their will. Washington responded by shaming them into silence and then retiring, the minute the war was won, to Mount Vernon. First he made a ceremony of giving up the command.
The same George Washington persuaded the same troops not to make any demands upon Congress, even upon the issue of the pay they were owed, which Congress has reneged upon as often as a bad tenant upon rent.
The same George Washington was chosen by national acclamation to be the first to occupy the office that Bill Clinton now occupies. When the proposal was made that he be called "Majesty" or some other such honorific, he devised the title "Mr. President." The restraint with which he discharged the office matched every other public thing he did in his life. Because of this he could have had the job in perpetuity. He set the example, followed by all but one of his successors, of serving two terms only.
Washington was America's first civil servant. He had courage. Every soldier in the army knew that he would not run—he would not even move—in the face of enemy fire. He had self-restraint. Every soldier in the army knew that he would not break in the face of—he would not take any notice of—hunger, or cold, or weariness. By these iron qualities he gathered unto himself the potential for enormous, approaching absolute, power.
When the soldiers in Washington's army wished to step beyond the bounds of the law, he alone could stop them. He did it by setting the example of self-restraint. Time and again he demonstrated the supreme art of the republican statesman: holding great authority, he used it to support self-government under the Constitution.
The last two State of the Union messages have been full of talk of smaller government. Some delivery upon that talk has been forthcoming from the Congress since November of 1994, and some of it, on the eve of an election, the president has been pleased to sign. We have welfare reform of a kind. Since the 104th Congress the government has not grown so fast.
If we are to keep these little advances and extend them to a general movement, we shall have to recover the idea that goes beyond smaller government. We shall have to understand once again what are the limits upon government, limits that are written in our own natures, limits shared by those who rule as much as those who are ruled.
Compare, then, the 5th annual message given by Washington, with the 5th annual message of Bill Clinton. The author of that earlier message was given to more than talk. And he did not announce principles in his speeches, and then go on to deny those principles with every word that followed. Back then, people would have noticed.