The Last Action Hero and the First President
In the hurricane of news this month—a riot in the Capitol last week, a presidential impeachment this week, an inauguration next week, with a Senate trial expected to follow—we should not overlook a moment of sensible calm asking us to heed America’s founding ideals. In a video released over the weekend that has already had more than 37 million views, one of our nation’s most famous immigrants offered a “a few words to my fellow Americans.” Sitting at a desk and framed by the U.S. and California flags, Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “We need to look past ourselves, our parties, and disagreements, and put our democracy first.”
These words could have been spoken by George Washington. Just with a different accent.
Two hundred and twenty-five years ago, President Washington announced that he would not seek a third term and would instead preside over an unprecedented and world-defining peaceful transition of power. There would be no lifetime rule, dictatorship, or inherited monarchy in America. But before he stepped down, he offered parting wisdom in his Farewell Address, a written statement first published on September 19, 1796. “Let me now take a more comprehensive view,” Washington said, “and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.”
“The will of a party,” Washington warned, in words Schwarzenegger would echo, can take on “an artificial and extraordinary force,” becoming “destructive” and overriding the “will of the nation.”
Schwarzenegger, fresh off his commendable public service promoting COVID-19 safety and thirty years after the release of his highest-grossing film, Terminator 2, has Washington’s Farewell Address on his mind these days. In a January 5 Economist article, he explicitly cited Washington’s warnings about “the spirit of revenge” that is “natural” to partisanship. A day later that warning came true. The mob of pro-Trump supporters who desecrated the halls of the U.S. Capitol, Schwarzenegger said in his video, “trampled the very principles on which our country was founded.”
The Austrian-born bodybuilder-turned-movie star-turned-governor hasn’t come only recently to share some of the views of the Virginian soldier-statesman. Arnold has embraced Washington’s example for years. During his 2003 first inaugural address as governor of California, Schwarzenegger noted that he had had to study American history to prepare for his citizenship exam in the early 1980s, and praised the Constitution and the Founders who “knew that the fate of the union was in their hands.” Following Washington’s famously nonpartisan example, Arnold appointed Republican, Democratic, and independent officials to his cabinet. Like Washington, Schwarzenegger “want[ed] people to know that my administration is not about politics.” It was about the greater good.
Recognizing today’s political fracture, the Governator in his video urges our leaders to have “a servant’s heart”:
[That] means serving something larger than yourself. See, what we need right now from our elected representatives is a public servant’s heart. We need public servants that serve something larger than their own power or their own party. We need public servants who will serve higher ideals, the ideals on which this country was founded, the ideals that other countries look up to.
This plea is similar to one made by Washington in 1796. The first president feared that if “the spirit of party” went unchecked it could open “the door to foreign influence and corruption” and “incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual,” resulting in “the ruins of Public Liberty.” The good of the nation must outweigh the interests of any party or individual.
Two-thirds of the way through the video, Schwarzenegger raises the two-handed sword he famously wielded in Conan the Barbarian and reminds Americans: “Our democracy is like the steel of this sword. The more it is tempered, the stronger it becomes.” America will endure, he says, and “we will come out stronger because we now understand what can be lost.” Our nation has faced trying moments before, and it has been our Founding ideals that have guided us through them.
Just as today, Washington’s final years saw the United States facing political fractures. Fears of civil war or insurrection were not far-fetched. Washington understood the dangers. Some of his advisers were convinced that only he could hold the young republic together. But Washington nevertheless said no to an easily winnable third term, and with it avoided the even-more-dire uncertainty that would have been created if he had died in office. Washington understood that the country needed to thrive without him. His true greatness, more than once in his career, came in his giving up power.
Washington’s words in the Farewell Address are as vital in 2021 as they were in 1796—so much so that the Terminator himself felt that Washington “sounds like someone who traveled through time (though I thought that was my thing).”
The ideals that Arnold endorses in his video are some of the oldest in our nation’s history, yet we cannot risk dismissing them as antiquated. Especially today, divided and hostile as our political life has become, we need to heed George Washington’s message about the importance of serving higher ideals and the dangers of extreme partisanship.
Because if an Austrian-born bodybuilder, a Hollywood actor, can learn the value of the Founders’ ideals, maybe we can too.