This was a remarkable gesture because, in modern history, it was unusual for presidents to actually walk upon this street, the ‘Avenue of the Presidents’, and to directly engage with their fellow citizens.
This scene was in stark contrast to the perceived imperial leadership style of Richard Nixon, whose political career had ended four years earlier when he became the first US president to resign from office. It was a time when we felt we might be moving from darkness to light.
This week we have seen the result of four years, perhaps longer, of the cultivation of the often invisible and evil forces that are ever-present in American life and increasingly throughout the world. These forces became highly visible with the storming of the US Capitol by thousands of domestic terrorists doing the bidding of President Trump.
A terrifying decline
Along with millions of Americans, I was horrified as I watched these terrorists, in large part white men carrying confederate flags, deface the people’s house. My horror soon became anger and then deep concern about the future of the US republic.
It was not always like this. In fact, the last time the US Capitol was attacked, it was by foreign invaders, the British redcoats, in 1814. Therefore, one wonders what we might learn from this historic moment in the American experiment?
Above the ornate front doors of the United States Archives, where the US Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence are permanently on display, are carved in marble these words, “The Past is Prologue”. I suppose my fundamental and still unanswered question this week is how did the beloved country of my birth rapidly transition from an orderly transfer of power as seen during the 1977 Carter inauguration to the terrifying decline we are now witnessing.
The answers to this question are complex, however, a comparison between the funding of the US and UK electoral systems is helpful.
The inordinate amount of spending required to be elected to public office in the US, perhaps due to its capitalistic roots, has in many ways limited access by citizens who wish to hold public office. As one example, more than half of the members of the US Congress, who are paid $174,000 (£128,000) a year, are millionaires and their average net worth is over $510,000.
Growing gap between rich and poor
In the state of Georgia, two US senatorial candidates spent over $500 million to be elected in their recent run-off election. In the UK, similar national campaigns are only allowed to spend £30,000 per constituency candidate.
US voters are increasingly aware of the huge investments required to win elections and I believe this is a contributing factor to the national civic outrage we are seeing today. More and more, citizens feel as though they are becoming disenfranchised.
Despite the fact that their current president is a billionaire who nearly half the electorate supported, this gap between the haves and have nots is greater than ever before and this recent assault on American democracy may be an indicator that change is needed.
The second answer is the increasingly large amount of financial contributions that US former leaders receive once leaving office for delivering speeches and providing lobbying services. As one recent example, Janet Yellen, the former chair of the US Federal Reserve, received $7 million over a two-year period when she stepped down as chair for delivering speeches, including nine talks for a major US banking organisation.
I believe it is time to limit the amount of funds that may be spent on campaigns and that former US leaders receive when they leave office.
One potential opportunity is to encourage former presidents to forego building another presidential library and instead donate any funds received to building new schools, hospitals and other public services.
US needs a new Thomas Paine
A US Congress person, senator and/or president, upon leaving office, receives a very large lifetime pension, personal protection services and other staff support.
The average life time pension for a US member of Congress is $74,000 per year. The average lifetime pension for a former US President is $219,000 per year.
They simply do not need to generate millions of additional dollars for their personal gain when these funds could be better used to support civil society.
The American patriot and founding father of the USA, Thomas Paine, said during the American Revolution that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
The horrifying conflict that we witnessed this week must lead to a greater triumph for the American republic and indeed for all citizens throughout the world who value the rule of law and cherish their democratic institutions, no matter how fragile they have become.
As I watch the unfolding events across the pond, I suddenly have a deep longing for men and women such as Thomas Paine to stand up and speak out and for their followers to listen to their wisdom and work even harder in the future to reduce conflict and promote harmony.
It is my hope that at least some of the refreshing harmony that I experienced upon the Avenue of the Presidents 44 years ago will return once more on 20 January, 2021, when there is a transition of power in the land that I greatly love and fondly remember and may we also transition from greed to fairness because that is how we shall once again move from darkness to light.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is emeritus professor of planned events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh and he was a local elected official in Washington, DC in the 1970s. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot