The last on my block, I have just finished reading Lynne Cheney’s splendid biography of our fourth president, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered. I blush to admit that my knowledge of Madison was not extensive. Of course I knew he was one of the authors of The Federalist and was considered the father of the Constitution. And, yes, I did know a bit more than that. I wasn’t completely ignorant. But, like many of my generation, growing up I had paid more attention to the likes of Marx and Marcuse. They were the cool guys. The Founding Fathers were people you had to study to pass a test, fogeys in wigs who took snuff and had elaborate handwritings.
Okay, I was dumb. But at least I’m trying to play catch up. One of the more surprising things I learned from Cheney’s book was how often and how extensively Madison and his good buddy Jefferson changed their minds. These guys were flip floppers. Well, not quite flip floppers of the John Kerry ilk (thankfully!), but they were able to reverse field when they had to or thought they had to. They were flexible men. In that sense they were the antitheses of our current president, who never seems to alter his views no matter what ever, holding on to them like a bulldog with the last chew toy on the planet.
In fact, Madison and Jefferson changed their views on really significant matters, usually in tandem, but sometimes not. Madison, in writing The Federalist, argued extensively and brilliantly for a strong federal government, strong in 1780s terms anyway, in order to stop the fragile country from flying apart and induce the states to support the Constitution. Not long thereafter, during Adams’ administration, he went the other way, becoming something of an ur-libertarian, backing states’ rights and smaller government. He had a good reason, the Alien and Sedition Acts that threatened the very Bill of Rights that Madison himself had authored (after he had opposed it). Yes, he was for the Bill of Rights after he was against it.
Obviously, the man had no values. Wrong. He had plenty. In Cheney’s telling, you see why he made the choices he did and in almost every case you agree — at least I did. What you see most, in Madison and Jefferson, is that in the end character is king. It’s who you are that determines things or, as Reagan famously said, “People are policy.”
That is why I am not one of those who gets overly head up over whether someone is a Tea Partier or a RINO. In fact, I’m not much for the terminology, which largely puts me to sleep. I prefer to take a step backwards and look at the person. I want someone who is psychologically and intellectually prepared for the unexpected, because none of us knows what the future will bring. Who knew George W. Bush would walk into 9/11 and become a wartime president?
On the election of 2016 I am an agnostic (except that I will be voting GOP) and intend to stay that way for a long time. There’s a lot to talk about and think about. I want to hear as much as I can — and to ask questions. Madison and Jefferson were concerned with big ideas. They weren’t into faux “hope and change.” They were into real change. We don’t see much of that from our present crop so far, though they haven’t had much opportunity to show us. Maybe someone will surprise, and inspire, us.