In Context & Out

The presidential campaign in recent days has been focused on a speech President Obama delivered in Roanoke almost two weeks ago. In that speech, the President said, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” It seems pretty obvious from the context that the “that” in the penultimate and last sentences referred to infrastructure.

Nonetheless, the Romney campaign pounced, lifting only the last two sentences of the president’s peroration, and arguing that the president was being disrespectful to the hard work of entrepreneurs. Team Romney crafted a powerful television ad featuring Jack Gilchrist, a small businessman in New Hampshire, who looked into the camera and asked, “My father’s hands didn’t build this company? My hands didn’t build this company? My son’s hands aren’t building this company?”

Happily for the Obama campaign, it turns out that Gilchrist Metal received more than $1 million in small business loans since the 1980s, as well as a Small Business Administration loan for under $500,000 during the 1980s. So, Mr. Gilchrist’s success, and that of his dad and his son, was not merely the result of the hard work of their hands. And, the governmental infrastructure that helped him was quite specific. I am sure Mr. Gilchrist drives to work, and that his company uses roads, and bridges, and air terminals to transport its wares, and as a taxpaying citizen, he has contributed to that physical infrastructure as have his neighbors who have not built small businesses. But, the fact that Gilchrist Metal benefited so obviously and specifically from the kind of financial infrastructure built up by administrations of both parties over the years, to address the challenges small businesspeople face in a free market that unduly hampered their access to credit, well, this whole episode is, dare we say it, rich. I can’t think of a 30-second spot that can encapsulate just how much this episode shows about the hypocrisy of the myths put out by the GOP about the supposed rugged independence of entrepreneurs, but I am betting that during the debates in October, Mr. Obama will have a minute to really highlight what the episode demonstrates about the Romney campaigns lies, both the little lies like taking a quote out of context and the big lies like supposing unfettered capitalism is such a great idea.

Of course, as Willard Mitt Romney likes to say, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I employ Romney’s arcane version of the phrase pointedly. An unnamed advisor to the Romney campaign told the London Telegraph’s Jon Swaine that, “We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage. The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have.” Now, this quote is different: We do not know the exact context. And Team Romney immediately distanced itself from the remark as distance itself the campaign must. The quote, in any context, raises the obvious follow-up: “What ‘We’ white man?” It is also unclear how the Obama White House has “failed” to honor the special relationship that undoubtedly has existed between the U.S. and the U.K., at least since Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill first met at Placentia Bay to draft the Atlantic Charter. Yes, Obama famously removed a bust of Churchill from the Oval Office at the start of his term but there is certainly a case to be made that President George W. Bush’s penchant for seeing himself through a Churchillian lens led Bush down paths of war-making that were dangerous. Also somewhat ridiculous. Whatever one thinks of George W. Bush, he was no Churchill.

The two quotes, taken together, point to an often overlooked feature of our shared life, a feature that raises troubling issues for both dominant ideologies. Part of the “none of us operate in a vacuum” motif surely includes the system of laws that product property rights, that ensure fair competition, and that defend intellectual property. The infrastructure we share is not merely roads and bridges, it is laws and customs, and those laws and many of those customs do, in fact, derive from Anglo-Saxon culture.

Part of that legal inheritance is that American law has never recognized the libertas ecclesiae, the freedom of the Church, which went out of Anglo-Saxon law when Henry VIII decided he wanted to take Anne Boleyn as his bride. By making himself Supreme Head of the Church, and therefore able to authorize his divorce from Queen Catherine, Henry eviscerated the long-standing legal rights of the Church and appropriated them to himself. Surely, those contemporary American bishops who have developed such a fondness for the memory of St. Thomas More are familiar with this fact. And, it is precisely this lack of legal precedents for the libertas ecclesiae that has been at the heart of the fight over the HHS contraception mandate. In January, when Catholics across the political spectrum objected to the narrow four-part definition of religious institutions issued by the HHS, they had an intuition not a legal argument. In America, since the founding, rights are understood to belong to individuals, not groups, including churches. The next time a preacher celebrates the founding fathers as if they were divinely inspired, they might want to think twice, at least if they are Catholic.

From the beginning, our Anglo-Saxon heritage bristled with hostility to Catholicism. “[A] religion fraught with sanguinary and impious tenets…a Religion that has deluged your Island in blood and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.” Those are the words with which the First Continental Congress described our Catholic Faith in their famous Address to the People of Great Britain in 1774. The Address came primarily from the pen of John Jay, who would go on to become the first Chief Justice of the United States. There is much truth to the observation that the American founding was a more religiously inspired event than many previous historians grasped, but it was not inspired by our Catholic religion.

Back to the plot. It is a shame, and more than a shame, that campaigns traffic in these kinds of misquotes. There are substantive differences between the two candidates. They view the policy choices facing the nation very differently. Even when they get into this kind of silly “gotcha” nonsense, they unwittingly touch on deeper issues. Obama is right that no entrepreneur is an economic island. And the Romney advisor is right that our nation has a deep inheritance from Anglo-Saxon culture. Wouldn’t it be nice to see the candidates and the voters grapple with the implications of what they say.


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