When Washington is broken, enter the `outsider'
WASHINGTON, Ga. (AP) -- Back in 1780, while the Revolutionary War still raged, a village in eastern Georgia had a notion. The hero of that uncertain hour was Gen. George Washington, and the community of Heard's Fort became the first of nearly 30 across the land to take his surname as its own.
Today, barring traffic, it takes nine hours and 31 minutes to drive south from the White House in THAT Washington to the town square of this one, where you'll find, among other attractions, a taxidermist, Miss Fanny's Tours and a monument to Confederate battle heroes.
This is an outpost in the small-town America coveted by John McCain and Barack Obama, and nary a Beltway insider is in sight. Viewed from here, the District of Columbia - the Washington that John F. Kennedy wryly called "a city of southern efficiency and northern charm" - seems like another world.
"I feel out of touch with them. I think most Americans do," Ashley Barnett, Wilkes County's tourism director, says in her office on Washington's town square.
That refrain has resounded through administrations from Lyndon Johnson to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, and never more than at this moment: To candidates and many voters, Washington - D.C., not Georgia - is, simply, broken. Insiders are out, and outsiders are most definitely in.
America, the thinking goes, needs a leader with a non-Washington sensibility to parachute in and repair the damage, to infuse heartland-bred common sense into a faltering federal behemoth whose corruption and ineptitude is dragging down the nation.
In the final week before Election Day 2008, this remains a fiery centerpiece of campaign rhetoric - the implication that a public servant in Washington is sullied simply by doing the job for a long time. A whiff of suspicion surrounds anyone who has, as Sarah Palin has put it, a "big fat resume that maybe shows decades and decades in that Washington establishment."
Obama often begins a sentence with something like, "These kinds of Washington tactics ..." And at the final debate this month, McCain said, "It's time we had that breath of fresh air coming into our nation's capital and sweep out the old-boy network and the cronyism that's been so much a part of it." No matter that both are part of the clubbiest Beltway club of all - the U.S. Senate.
Is this rejection of the Washington insider a distinctively modern response, born of government bloat and blight? Not so much.
The tale of the outsider blowing into town with maverick sensibilities has been a campaign chestnut since the days of America's first true populist, Andrew Jackson. He sneered with great success at those effete founding fathers who groomed their ponytails, used big words and went on Euro-junkets even as they rhapsodized about the common man.
In fact, the image of hyper-competent, rough-edged outsiders - remember, we're supposed to be a nation of 'em - has been a potent strand of the American story since it began.
"It's very reflective of the ways Americans think about their political institutions," says Peter J. Kastor, a cultural historian at Washington University in St. Louis. "Americans have celebrated people who are removed from the national capital and are deeply suspicious of political systems in which all the power is concentrated in the center."
"We are," Kastor says, "redeemed from the periphery."
America's zeal for outsiders is rooted in the Reformation, when Martin Luther launched Protestantism by splitting from the Roman Catholic Church and asserting that humans didn't need priests to mediate and interpret God's word.
That notion was imported to the New World by the Puritans - self-styled outsiders who sailed away from insiderism. They infused their world view into early American government, where it became a bedrock principle.
On this side of the ocean, the suspicion of men who wielded the word of God eventually became, in its secular American equivalent, a wariness toward established governmental authority. This strand of cultural DNA endured far beyond the few years it took for the outsiders who formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony to become the old guard - and persecute outsiders themselves.
The American Revolution, itself a rejection of European insiderism in the form of British royalty, cemented America's self-image as a society of outsiders.
Jackson's flavor of democracy, which emerged in the 1820s, presaged decades of fiery populism that suggested the country was in better hands if those hands weren't dirtied by the grime of politics. That outsider-as-savior notion played well to pioneers who were, literally, turning their back on Eastern elites and remaking American society as they moved west.
The most famous campaign speech in American history was, in fact, about outsiders. The populist William Jennings Bryan, opposing William McKinley for president in 1896, was fighting for free silver and the interests of workers and farmers - but, more broadly, for people who toiled far from the seats of power.
"We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came," Bryan said. "We beg no longer. We entreat no more. We petition no more. We defy them!"
But perhaps the biggest cultural force that entrenched the outsider in American culture came from the California desert. From the 1920s through the 1960s, the Hollywood western elevated and romanticized the hero as the "High Noon"-style guy from another place who arrived in a town, found that entrenched impotence and stagnation were undermining justice, and cut through the clutter to do the right thing.
Then, as often as not, he'd move on, a lonely man who'd rejected the moral decay of established authority and operated better at the edges.
Now: Transplant this thinking into modern American politics. The rhetoric afoot in the republic today suggests a sensibility like that of Cincinnatus, the Roman citizen who went from farmer to dictator when duty called, then back to farmer when the urgent work at hand was completed.
This, in the United States, is what often passes for a democratic sensibility: Ambition is fine, as long as you maintain the illusion that eventually you'll come back to being one of us. The fight to claim power matters more than the power itself.
But one American's elitism is another's accumulated competence, and for either a U.S. senator or a governor to invoke outsiderism in 2008 is a bit ridiculous. By the time you've gotten that far, you're part of the establishment in countless ways and playing into what Patricia Nelson Limerick, one of the American West's pre-eminent historians, calls the "posturing of independence and reliance on dependence."
Sure, there is a tradition of amateurs in American government. But most of the greats eventually became lifelong professional politicians - even those who are perceived today as outsiders. So it was with Harry Truman, former haberdasher, and Ronald Reagan, former actor.
That's the problem with outsiderism. It never lasts. It can't. Outsiders become insiders, then become suspect, and new outsiders are born.
"I don't see this as something one cures," says Evan Cornog, author of "The Power and the Story: How the Crafted Presidential Narrative Has Determined Political Success from George Washington to George W. Bush." "I see it as a healthy tension in American culture, and one that goes through cycles."
We are in one of those cycles, it appears. It may be because - though America is full of the economically and socially disenfranchised, and though many of us reject Washington on principle - there aren't many true outsiders anymore.
Whether you come from Washington, Ga., or Washington, Maine, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, we're more connected than we've ever been. That could be why the mythology of the outsider as mover and shaker, maverick and bearer of American common sense, remains potent.
It wasn't coincidence that the Hollywood western emerged only a few decades after the frontier was declared closed. Without real Americans out there charting new courses and pushing west, the national narrative needed fictional ones to take their place. Can it be that the same thing is happening today, in a globalized world where we all depend upon each other? It's hard to be a rugged individualist when most of us live within a mile of a Starbucks and convulse in anxiety when the cable goes out.
Connectedness has long been an American reality, but quiet self-reliance - fix what's broken, Just Do It - has been the American ideal even longer. Which makes it the perfect message to come from the lips of a candidate trying to rally the troops in a campaign's 11th hour and go from self-styled outsider to the most powerful insider of all.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Ted Anthony covers politics and culture for The Associated Press. Comments about Measure of a Nation can be sent to measure(at)ap.org.