When George Washington left the White House in 1796 and retired from public life, John Avlon explains, he wrote "this memo…to future generations in which he is consciously trying to marry the past, the present of 1796, the future, and the forces that had destroyed democratic republics in the past. The big three forces are hyper-partisanship, excessive debt and foreign wars."
Avlon is the editor in chief of The Daily Beast and the author of Washington's Farewell: The Founding Father's Warning to Future Generations, a bold reinterpretation of the most widely read political speech in 19th-century America. For generations, Washington's 6,000-word long final speech was "civic scripture" that presidents and citizens alike used to steer clear of the excesses that might undermine the country. In a wide-ranging conversation with Reason's Nick Gillespie (a Beast columnist), Avlon argues that the country's only independent president created an "eerily prescient" roadmap that might allow 21st-century America to re-center itself when it comes to overseas wars and foreign alliances that serve other nations' interests above our own, ruinous debt created by entitlement spending, and moderate the excesses of vitriol that has led to a "deadlocked democracy." He also discusses his time as chief speechwriter for Mayor Rudy Giuliani and why The Daily Beast continues to gain traffic even as many legacy media outlets see shrinking audiences.
Produced by Ian Keyser.
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This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against audio for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie: John, thanks for talking to us.
John Avlon: Hey, Nick. Sure.
Nick Gillespie: I want to get right to it. You talked in the book about Washington's Farewell Address which is more kind of known in the abstract in the present. I want to hear you talk about why it's important that we read the whole 6,000 word bit today, but you talk about how Washington used his farewell address to proclaim first principles that could offer enduring solutions. The pursuit of peace through strength, the wisdom of moderation, the importance of virtue and education to a self-governing people, as he established the precedent of the peaceful transfer of power. I guess my first question is, how did Washington know what was going to happen in 2016?
John Avlon: I'm not sure his crystal ball was that good, but John Adams famously said that there hasn't yet been a democracy that didn't die by suicide. Every attempt at a democratic republic had ended into failure and what I don't think we adequately appreciate today is that the Founding Fathers were very consciously drawing on history, an understanding of how democratic republics had failed in the past in an attempt to solve for some of those problems. They did not have perfect crystal balls. They couldn't have imagined necessarily America in 2017 of course, but they were trying to tap into deeper truths, eternal principles.
That's why what's so fascinating about the farewell, it's this memo from the first Founding Father to future generations in which he is consciously trying to marry the past, the present of 1796, and the future, and the forces that had destroyed democratic republics in the past are eerily prescient. The big three forces are hyperpartisanship, excessive debt and foreign wars. We in America are a relatively young country still, but we do not exist on a plain larger than history and the larger forces of civilization.
As we think about our country as a civilization as something to protect, defend, expand, to understand that these are forces that when we play with them, when we get too careless, rationalizing hyperpartisanship for example as an extension of ideological debates, that we're tapping into something deeply dangerous that has destroyed democratic republics in the past.
Nick Gillespie: Discuss a little bit about what a giant role Washington's Farewell Address played for 100 or 150 years of American historiography and you talk about it I think brilliantly as the old testament for American civic religion and the Gettysburg Address kind of the new testament. Talk about the vast influence that it had for so many years.
John Avlon: That's part of what makes it such a great story is that the farewell address was more widely reprinted than the Declaration of Independence for the first 100 years of our republic. It was civic scripture. It was called upon at all times. Civic leaders would try to hold up their decisions and conduct active arguments about great debates through its lens and then it fell out of favor beginning in World War I, but just for example.
Nick Gillespie: Did it fall out of favor for ideological reasons or did it … What replaced it?
John Avlon: Well, one could argue nothing, but it was largely the debate around World War I where Woodrow Wilson squares off against Henry Cabot Lodge, Senator for Massachusetts, both Washington biographers by the way, and the whole debate about whether America should get involved in a continental war. That itself seems to ignore Washington's advice in fundamental ways. The League of Nations, which was ultimately Cabot won that round, was rejected largely on people saying, "We need to remember Washington's …
Nick Gillespie: Because we shouldn't have been in World War I. The League of Nations, part of what Washington talks about is those enduring alliances. We should not be involved one way or the other.
John Avlon: Right. It's funny because Washington's Farewell I think has been willfully misinterpreted and misunderstood often as an endorsement of isolationism. It is not, but what he sets forward is a philosophy of independence and a foreign policy of independence. That's what I think can't be appreciated enough. Will Rogers used to have a great line that America has the two greatest friends that any country ever had. You know who they are? The Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. There was enormous strategic benefit at being separated from the turmoils of Europe. Now of course at some point, technology shrinks the tyranny of distance and there are limits to applicability, but principles are meant to guide us.
They're not rigid straitjackets, but you asked how the farewell address impacted and was used throughout American history. Jefferson is Washington's ultimate frenemy. They are squaring off and Jefferson with great duplicity is funding a newspaper out of his state department to attack Washington's administration because Washington refuses to sign up with the French Revolution. Washington very much wants us to walk a middle ground between the monarchy and the mob and he and Hamilton and Adams are horrified by the new type of tyranny the French Revolution represents. Jefferson is enthralled by it and thinks you got to break a few eggs to make an omelet and we're expanding the empire of liberty and all that bloodshed is just part of the cause.
That's when the French also started trying to infiltrate domestic politics and one of the things that blew my mind is Washington so much in the farewell is warning against foreign influence in domestic politics.
Nick Gillespie: You know what? That has now relevance today.
John Avlon: Exactly. It's because this was part of the stories about how democratic republics had been weakened in the past by states infiltrating themselves and to debate, confusing people about real national self-interest and then leaving them divided and weak and liable to conquer. Putin didn't come up with the playbook himself. It was a thing that Washington wrestled with. When Jefferson takes the Oath of Office, he becomes a born again Washingtonian. The phrase "entangling alliances" is his. It does not appear in the farewell address. Andrew Jackson's Farewell Address is almost entirely a riff off Washington's Farewell Warning his fellow citizens saying that when Washington wrote this only 20 years after the declaration, we didn't know if the constitution would succeed.
Now we do, but let's not be lulled into the false idea that we can indulge the forces that will lead to civil war because Washington was eminently focused on national unity. That he understood that our independence as a nation was inseparable from our interdependence as a people. Jackson is hammering away at that and Lincoln in 1860. Part of his standard stump speech was a riff off the farewell address. He requires that the farewell address be read aloud to troops during the Civil War to remind them what they're fighting for. After the Civil War, the farewell address is deployed in public schools to help reunite the nation, but it is true that overtime the Gettysburg Address takes over the place its held.
The reason that I say that it's the old testament is that Washington's Farewell Address is these rules of behavior dispatched by a distant god. It is here is the principles for you to remain a strong vibrant democratic republic, but it can be tough going. It's over 6,000 words. The Gettysburg Address is this poetic rumination of life after death and it's 272 words and a lot easier to memorize in schools. Farewell address falls away, the Gettysburg Address …
Nick Gillespie: How do you think Obama's Farewell Address stacks up? It's unfair to … I mean this is the greatest set of all times in many ways, but was he consciously striking notes from Washington's Farewell or was it disconnected?
John Avlon: Very explicitly. He quoted Washington's Farewell Address in the speech and in Chicago that night. To some extent like inaugurals, farewell addresses are conversations across the generations. Washington set the mold there as well because he decides to issue the presidential warning. The farewell address isn't this valedictory victory lap where he talks about all the great things he did. It's specifically a warning to his fellow citizens about the forces that could destroy our democratic republic and had in the past. When Eisenhower does his, I think the other greatest farewell address, it's a warning about the rise of the military industrial complex which in the original draft was the military industrial congressional complex.
He build it explicitly on the model of Washington's Farewell. We have memos that I include in the book because there's a chapter on the afterlife of the idea. Obama unusually, not exclusively, quoted directly from Washington's Farewell Address. It was to make the point of national unity and to also I think his great threat, his warning to us and future generations was that democracy is not a given. It was threats to democracy. That was the flow-through he warned about when you look about the rise of what maybe called illiberal democracy or soft authoritarianism that we're dealing with right now, the reaction of globalization.
Not only the rise of Islamist terrorism, but these ethno-nationalist political movements they're all contained and that's what he was warning about.
Nick Gillespie: Let's talk about it in the contemporary context because it is stunning and it's not simply Donald Trump. I mean there's a global phenomenon going on. There are democrats who are sending economic nationalist sentiments almost as loudly as Trump himself. We've got hyperpartisanship. We've got debt up the wazoo and we've got alliances that have been long standing that are either strategically dubious. You and I might disagree about say NATO or the role of NATO, but people are questioning that.
John Avlon: Probably one of the two areas we do disagree on.
Nick Gillespie: Certainly people are talking about these. How do we pull back on the partisanship that is bad? We do want to have ideological differences that we discuss.
John Avlon: We want to have vigorous debate, right?
Nick Gillespie: Yeah.
John Avlon: Dissent is essential to democracy. This is something that I think you and I have both written books about in the past. Washington is the first and to date only independent president. He was not a member of political party as a matter of principle and people forget this that the constitution itself doesn't mention political parties. It only seems like they're the purpose of our politics. They're not. It does mention journalists which I think is worth remembering, but it doesn't mention political parties. Part of the reason that Washington was in great psychic and physical pain at the time of the farewell address was that he was watching his two most talented surrogate sons in the cabinet, Jefferson and Hamilton, start to seed these partisan forces.
He could see them tearing apart the country and he warned particularly against regional political parties because that would lead to civil war potentially, but also taking notes from ancient Greece and Rome. He warned against what they called faction, political factions, but we could call hyperpartisanship. One of the explicit riffs he hits that is so prophetic is he says, "When a country becomes consumed with partisan rivalry, the result is a deadlocked democracy." That creates a real resentment on the part frustrated citizens who see their government not being efficient or effective.
Nick Gillespie: Or representative.
John Avlon: Or representative. Exactly. That, he warned, could open the door to a demagogue with authoritarian ambitions.
Nick Gillespie: I guess it also in the contemporary context deadlocked congress. I'm not sure that I want them to be active, but it leads to a place where we now have two thirds of our federal spending is on autopilot. It's entitlements and interest on the debt. We're not going to do anything about that. That's the next thing in the farewell …
John Avlon: There's been a complete capitulation and this is something that I'm really passionate about and an entire chapter in the book because Washington was very clear about the fact as was Hamilton that excessive debt was a force that topples empires. Excessive is the key. Washington was actually allergic to debt. He thought it was an insult to self-sufficiency and indeed it can be. Washington and Hamilton get this sort of philosophical mind meld beginning in the revolution. It wasn't just because there was a weak and ineffectual continental congress. It was that the currency was so debased that they could not buy basic munitions, right? Getting loans from France and The Netherlands was essential.
Robert Moore is first and then Hamilton really became disciples of the necessity of fiscal discipline, but the degree of debt could be a great thing for a young nation. A degree of debt. That's the key caveat. Washington edits these lines very carefully to show that he's not and he's won over by Hamilton on this, he is not opposed to all debt, but when it becomes excessive what we pass on to the posterity those debts that we ought to pay ourselves. Generational responsibility. That's when it becomes untenable. He says, "Look, you're going to have to man up and deal with the math and pay taxes. It's not pleasant, but you're going to need to do it." That's another reason to be very wary of wars because it's not only blood, it's also treasure.
Again these are historical forces he's engaging with and they're forces that we have begun to view as remote and distant, but history usually has the last laugh. That's why there's an urgency in listening to them again.
Nick Gillespie: It's not untangle alliances, but it is treaties, mutual defense. How do we deal with that now in a context using Washington as a lens?
John Avlon: I think again it's a lens with which to guide us.
Nick Gillespie: It's not set prescriptions, do this and don't do that.
John Avlon: Right, because as brilliant as they were, I'm going to assume they could have not anticipated …
Nick Gillespie: Drones, supersonic, ICBMs, all that kind of stuff.
John Avlon: Yeah. The safety that the ocean provided us for a time militarily does not exist. Washington wanted to take advantage of that so we could grow in strength militarily, economically. He actually was very much an advocate of fairly an expansive vision of commercial ties with all nations, political ties with none. What he was trying to do was make sure that our decisions were rooted in our self-interest. What he was very weary of was young nations becoming a pawn in larger games.
Nick Gillespie: That does not sound different from the way Donald Trump talks.
John Avlon: This is an area where some Trump supporters might really be able to identify and part of my hope with Washington's Farewell Address is that it remains a document that can unite us. Left, right, libertarians, center. That it can provide a sense of common ground and common purpose. There are things that would appeal to some Donald Trump supporters. He wouldn't use a phrase like noninterventionist like Rand Paul and many libertarians, but he would also reject despite the invocation of the America First legacy which itself is wrapped up in Washington, of isolationism. Washington, the first battle he's involved in as a young solider kicks of the French and Indian War. He understands the interconnectedness.
He is under no illusions, but he's also not under any illusion that any other nation's self-interest should be mistaken for our own. What he doesn't want and what the two parties get formed as are basically proxies of France and/or England. He had insist on a proclamation of neutrality because he doesn't want us to become overwhelmed. He wants us time to grow in strength economically, militarily and he's warning very consistently that we can't get off center in our politics, in our finances or in our foreign affairs.
Nick Gillespie: I mean would you consider yourself a political moderate or political centrist? How do you define yourself? Really in many ways it's the great theme of your work and books early. Books like "Wingnuts" which were about how extremists, the what? The Glenn Beck's and the Keith Olbermann's of the world were part of the problem. I mean you're kind of sounding a similar note in a different theme here.
John Avlon: That is very much intentional. It's what I believe and I think it's a flow-through of much of my work, not all, but my first book "Independent Nation." I'm a proud centrist. I'm an independent as a matter of principle. One of the things I think we also forget is that moderation was a virtue to the Founding Fathers, particularly Washington. Moderation was a source of strength as a governing principle. Because when we became immoderate and this rooted in classical wisdom, the Golden Mean, avoid the extremes. This was also the living memory of how England had degenerated into civil war.
That when extreme factions start polarizing and demonizing fellow citizens, right, when they undermine the idea of assuming a common ground and common good, that that's when democracies fall apart. Washington was very … He had a great phrase called "pretend patriots." It was the people who try to divide fellow Americans against each other while trying to pretend that they're representing our deepest traditions and true interests. He called them pretend patriots. I think that is a useful phrase to remember from time to time.
Nick Gillespie: Would like today's independence or moderates or centrists to be called Washingtonians?
John Avlon: I think that is the right banner for us to unite and fight under. I do. It's a strong plurality of Americans who believe ultimately that there's more than unites us than divides us as Americans. I think what we need to do is not have moderation as a principle of governing which is not mushy metal split the difference. It's let's try to define the common ground. Let's root our politics in our best deepest traditions. Let's balance individual liberty and generational responsibility. That that tension is what makes free government work.
Nick Gillespie: What does that mean with something say like entitlement reform because from a libertarian perspective, I think we're passed the entitlement era. We can't afford it because the finances don't work out. It's part of the 19th century. It's a German invention. It's not going to work anymore. I suspect you would be less willing to say, "Okay. Let's get rid of entitlements." How do you come up with a moderate social safety … Put some meat on your bones.
John Avlon: First of all, I think the guiding principle of trying to balance individual liberty and generational responsibility is right. I think generational responsibility, that argument directly addresses out of control deficits and debt. The prime driver of which is entitlements. I think you need to do things that allow a winning off, but it's on the spirit of generational responsibility, not fiscal austerity for its own sake. It's about looking for the long-term strength of a republic, not being undermined. You need to deal with those things. You cannot pretend they don't matter. You cannot pretend that they're an esoteric concern. It's very real and it can happen very quick.
The ancient Greeks "invented democracy" and they have had a real time with it in part because of excessive debt and a culture that's I think been too driven by these …
Nick Gillespie: To go to this question of moderation, it's kind of interesting to think about. You worked with Rudolph Giuliani when he was … Rudy Giuliani in New York. He is one of the least moderate people in American politics. I mean when he was mayor of New York and there were many things I didn't necessarily agree with him on, but he was the future of the republican party because he was a moderate republican. Then he became an ankle-biter for Trump. Is he a cautionary tale?
John Avlon: Look, I had the privilege of being Rudy's chief speechwriter when he was Mayor of New York and I was a young man. I'm very proud of the work we did and I think he saved New York City. I think it's one of the great examples of effective governance that can occur from the center-right. To me it was never incidental that he was a republican. He was tough on crime. Crime and welfare were cut in half under his tenure. He showed that New York City could be governed again, but he was pro-choice. He was pro-gay rights. He was pro-immigrant and he never wavered from those things. That to me is a vision of the vital center and that it applies to cities in particular. We obviously disagree about Donald Trump. I think he ran a decisive demagogic campaign.
I also believe that good people can disagree. I think our politics are in very different places at the moment, but I'm enormously proud. I think that it would be a great disservice to the country, to the city, if this chapter were used to define him because there are plenty of his political enemies when he really did challenge I think a very sclerotic orthodoxy. That was really driving down people's sense of civic investment. A lot of that involved taking on big liberal bureaucracies and other things. If the chapter is used to define him, then we will lose some degree of access to that really effective and important chapter. He deserves all the credit for that.
Nick Gillespie: At The Daily Beast, you guys are kicking as I write for you, so obviously I think it's a wonderful publication. Possibly only the reason. What are the things that excites you the most about covering news, politics and culture in the Trump era?
John Avlon: Well, our mission is clear. I mean I think that's the thing that there is no ambiguity as to the purpose of working in the free press right now.
Nick Gillespie: What do you mean by that?
John Avlon: I think we need to hold power to account. That's a constant. You need to respect the Office of President, but relentlessly hold the invidivuals occupying the White House in a given time accountable. The larger forces here is tapped into from the broader wave of ethno-nationalism which I think is deeply disturbing. It does not represent our best traditions. You can call it populism, conservative populism. It is predicated upon the demagogue's telltale equation which is us against them. That I think is the opposite of our best traditions as a country. As journalists I think it is absolutely key that we step up our game. It is a more dangerous environment when the President of the United States is calling journalists the enemy of the American people.
It's almost a cartoon, but it's very real. You go into work everyday with a real sense of mission, with a sense of clarity and a sense that democracy cannot be taken for granted. You still need to make sure you're entertaining as you educate. We want to draw people in. We have a very young audience, but we don't dumb it down for them. What I love about The Daily Beast is that we're the intersection of politics and pop culture, but we love calling bullshit on bullies, bigots and hypocrites. We are nonpartisan, but not neutral. What that means is that we will punch both sides as the facts provide. We will insist on a fact-based debate.
That creates a dynamic mix with great columnists and great writers and real original reporting which his sadly differentiated today. It allows us to more than double our traffic. More than a million people a day read The Daily Beast now and I'm proud of that.
Nick Gillespie: Well, congratulations on that. We will leave it there. We have been talking with John Avlon. He's the editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast and he's the author most recently of the excellent book "Washington's Farewell: The Founding Father's Warning To Future Generations." John, thanks for talking.
John Avlon: Thanks, Nick.
Nick Gillespie: For Reason, I'm Nick Gillespie. Thanks of listening.