December 25, 2021

“What is Past is Prologue.”

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

Or is it?

Shakespeare’s famous words from The Tempest are chiseled into the pedestal of the Robert Aitken sandstone sculpture, named Future, at the entrance of the Archives of the United States. As a young boy growing up only a mile or two away in Washington’s inner city, I enjoyed roaming the area around the national mall, and that sculpture always stopped me in my tracks. The statue, a seated and contemplative woman, holding an open book on her lap, always fascinated me. If a picture is worth a thousand words, that sculpture is worth a million. Google it and take a close look at the woman’s face. Go ahead, do it.

Think about what you see. The woman, as the sculpture, Future, makes clear has looked into what has been, and is contemplating what is to come, and has learned something of great consequence. Maybe something wonderful, perhaps something foreboding, perhaps something beyond merely disappointing, maybe something terrible. Then let your eyes drift down to the inscription, “What is Past is Prologue.” The past portending the Future.

The present is, of course, very fleeting. Almost everything has either happened or is about to happen. We have no influence over the past (revisionists aside), and the Future will be a product of our decisions in the fleeting present. As Shakespeare wrote, “Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come—in your and my discharge.” A touch of wisdom coupled with a touch of warning from the Bard of Avon.

If we let this time in history be a que sera sera moment, what will be won’t be pleasant. If we, as citizens of this great republic, do not resolve in this, our present, to protect the republic our founders gave us, we will lose it. Franklin knew how fragile the fledgling republic he and his compatriots gifted to us would be. He warned us; they had given us a republic if we could keep it. We can no longer take our republic and its constitutional democracy for granted. Its Future is on the line in this, our present.

On the far left and on the far right, however, there are movements that seem determined to tear the country apart. Indeed, the provocateurs no longer even try to disguise their objective.

But let us return to Truth, that mesmerizing sculpture at the entrance to our National Archive. The woman’s face might be thought of as a sandstone Rorschach Test. Everyone will see in it what they will. So, as 2021 draws to a close, I will share with you what I think her contemplative expression might be revealing to her about the year that is about to begin and the Future it might portend. She observes, once again, the march of the January 6th insurrectionists as they make their way to the Capitol, passing right in front of her as they did on that fateful day. What might that vision tell her?

A senseless siege morphing into a solid strategy

No, I’m not suggesting another senseless siege of the U.S. Capitol as planned by the organizers, promoters, and participants involved in the so-called Stop the Steal Rally; the Giuliani’s, the Bannon’s, the gaggle of Trumps, among others. I’m referring to their elected acolytes in what was once the Grand Ole Party, who are actively preparing to set the stage to reassume power. They won’t try to stop the constitutionally mandated counting of electoral votes as they did on January 6th. They won’t be that ham-handed again. Instead, they are openly scheming to reset the table, to create the tools to subvert the will of the voters by, if necessary, rewriting election procedure laws in the states where they hold power. And, most notably and with very few exceptions, never admitting that Joe Biden is the legitimately elected President of the United States. They know they can’t keep the stolen-election farce alive if they acknowledge that Biden is the legitimately elected President. They know they can’t keep the 68% of registered Republicans who have bought into the stolen-election lie in line if they acknowledge that, yeah, Biden really won.

So, they will not utter those words. That’s not stubbornness. That’s strategy. They need to keep the stolen-election farce alive. And it is an incredibly self-serving, malevolent strategy because it is intended to undermine America’s confidence in its own elections. The 2020 election was, in fact, the most secure election in our history, according to those responsible for election security at our own Department of Homeland Security and the United States Department of Justice. Even former Trump-appointed Attorney General William Barr acknowledged there was no voter fraud sufficient to have affected the election outcome. No court of law, and there were dozens, failed to see through the Trump election-fraud farce. Of course, priming voters to buy into election fraud is an old and tired Trump strategy. He sent up that trial balloon before the 2020 election and even before the 2016 election, which he assumed he would not win. Never admit defeat, former disgraced attack dog Roy M. Cohn taught him. It’s a lesson Trump learned well.

Concurrently, the Trump loyalists are eyeing whatever they can do locally and at the state level to unlevel the election playing field. So far, according to the States United Democracy Center, whose mission is to promote free, fair, and secure elections, fourteen states have moved to either strip election oversight from non-partisan election officials, increase legislative (partisan) management of elections, or enact new laws that would subject election officials to intimidating criminal or financial liability even though there have been no crimes alleged against election officials.

States that have moved to strip election officials of their overseeing role as of June 2021 are Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, and Montana. States that have moved to increase legislative (partisan) management of elections are Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. And those states that have pursued intimidating criminal or financial penalties for election officials going forward (in the absence of any such material violations in the last election) are Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, and Texas.

None of us can afford to take our democracy for granted. Our founders certainly didn’t. As Jonathan Rauch writes in his marvelous book, The Constitution of Knowledge –the Defense of Truth, “From where Americans sit today, the Constitution’s success seems preordained. To Madison and his contemporaries, the Constitution was the longest of long shots. They understood that America’s republic cannot be legitimate if it is not democratic, but they also understood that democracy, at least pure democracy, is an inherently unstable form of government, prone to manipulation and overthrow by parochial interests, passionate minorities, and dangerous demagogues…Madison understood that any truly representative democracy must allow factions to form and promote their various causes, but he also understood that unchecked factionalism would make the polity ungovernable.”

The republic’s future rests within reasonable proximity to the governable center, where both parties must work to reconcile differences. Sound governance cannot simply be a tug-of-war, but, instead, it must be a meeting of the minds through deliberative and sometimes painful compromise. As Benjamin Franklin feared and warned, government by tug-of-war can only tear the country apart.

The Future is, indeed, ours to see. “Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come—in your and my discharge.”

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10 responses to ““What is Past is Prologue.””

  1. sheila says:

    I just googled The Future sculpture and enlarged the face. She is calm but clearly worried, if not deeply disturbed. There is no relief in her face. There is no joy. Her eyes and expression convey her sadness. She was carved in 1935, a product of the Depression, bread lines, rampant unemployment, with anti-semitism taking horrific form in Germany with the passage of the Nuremberg Laws. But it was also a time for hope for our country, as the Social Security Act was passed that same year. We had a Congress, at that time, that had, as you described, a “governable center”.

    This sculpture is a brilliant metaphor for the chaos and uncertainty we see in our country today. Tragically, I think the “governable center” was a long time ago. Our country is now truly on a precipice and time is running out. If our Democrat Congress can’t do something quickly to mitigate the impact of the new election laws that allow state legislatures to overturn legally cast votes, then we are certainly doomed to repeat a nightmare- and it is our generation that will have failed our country.

  2. Perry says:

    Both parties are complicit in trying to rig elections in their favor. IT is not just the Republicans but local and redistricting officials each and every election. If we believe we actually elect
    office holders today we are only about 1/2 right. The power brokers of each political party
    are the true nominators. the only choice voters have is the final one. In your essay today you call out the Bannon’s and the Trump loyalists, but not the Unions, the powerful squad with it’s vocal minority wagging the tail of the current administration. Who is in charge ultimately it will be the American people that is why we hold elections and the change is healthy.

  3. Ted Goldman says:

    “….with allegiance to neither the left or the right…”


    Ted Goldman

  4. Response to Ted Goldman: Really!

  5. LWY says:

    Article 1 Section 4 of our constitution says “The Times, Places and Manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof..”
    So what is the problem with each state making rules to enhance their election integrity? Why is it improper to require voter ID, when just about every major Democratic country in our universe requires one? Why is it improper to require everyone to vote on one day, except if they are unable to do so whereby they must show a voter ID before being presented an absentee ballot?

    • Harold Gershowitz says:

      Nothing, but what does that have to do with stripping non-partisan election officials of their overseeing role.

  6. BLB says:

    I agree with LWY….thanks for quoting the Constitution. The States have the right to legislate their own laws, as they have always done. Only last year did the Federal government get involved because of Biden’s “running mate Covid”. And that created all the problems and the changes to the 2020 election, which in turn created chaos. I reference Mollie Hemmingway’s book “Rigged”for details of how the election laws in various states were changed.

    The topic of January 6th is getting old….on all the platforms, the media, and the publications. There are many, many voters (conservatives too) who do not think the election was stolen. So continuing to lump 60%of voters into a group is getting old also.

    Last week I pondered on why there is so much written and referenced on Trump and Jan 6th rather than talking about the current administration and its policies and accomplishments. And I realized that the “other party” ie the Democrats, have nothing to write about or talk about from this administration that is not a disaster. So they just sweep it under the proverbial carpet and bring up Jan 6th or ANYTHING to do with Trump. Very lame.
    Now that the Democrats are unable to pass their latest Build Back Better (or Broke) bill, they turn to the only thing left for them to try to keep control of the electorate…..the Voting Rights Bill.
    Thereby creating another subject to make controversial and blame the Republicans.
    What should be done in our Congress to level the playing field is to bring back “regular order” in the legislative process so that both sides can discuss (what a concept!) and come to a consensus of what their electorate that they represent want before they vote on it.
    As stated in this dialogue, nothing gets accomplished when one side is dictating what the other side should do.

  7. JBA says:

    Thank you BLB…….. Our President and VP need to step it up or get out of the way.
    and agree with LWY the Constitution has served us well …….why are we dismissing now?

    • Harold Gershowitz says:

      The constitution “gets dismissed” when partisan political parties get to decide
      the outcome rather than impartial election procedures and impartial election officials.

  8. Donna says:

    Thank you for sharing the Aitken sculpture and all she represents…
    I did look her up and also saw “Past”, an older male figure–
    his book is closed! (as in history-has-been written). Enjoyed
    looking thru the eyes of young (potentially hopeful)
    woman that you shared…. but the image of her watching
    the insurrectionists storm by is haunting.

    Could not agree with you more that those of us who are
    awake need to do more than hand-wringing… .you certainly
    are attempting to move the needle with your wise words…
    but there’s a pervasive feeling that we’re “so-Germany-early ’30’s”,
    just sitting at dining tables kvetching while the tidal wave is forming
    just one election cycle away.

    I also wanted to share “ON Tyranny” by Timothy Snyder… would be
    surprised if you don’t have it…. but if it’s not a valued part of your
    collection, it definitely needs to be! It’s a deeply insightful “illustrated” literary
    version of “past is prologue”.

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