Recasting Leadership in Virginia

Recasting Leadership in Virginia


A decade ago, while serving as speechwriter for an emerging public servant named Mark Warner, I became convinced of two things. First, Virginia's political future should be crafted by thoughtful, moderate leaders from both political parties. Second, achieving such a future depends on how we prepared the next generation of political leaders for service to the Commonwealth.

To meet this need, I founded a bipartisan nonprofit organization to design civic education programs for Virginia's college and high school students.

Each year, while welcoming nearly equal numbers of Democrats, Republicans and Independents to the Sorensen Institute, I tell my new students a story to illustrate this challenge by introducing them to George Wythe. Wythe, speaker of the Virginia Assembly and framer of the U.S. Constitution, was also a teacher. One of his law students was a young man named Thomas Jefferson, who considered Wythe his greatest mentor.

When Wythe died in 1806, he left to Jefferson a gift in the form of two large silver chalices. Jefferson placed the chalices on a shelf near his desk, where they sat for many years and frequently caught his eye.

One day, Jefferson took the chalices from the shelf, boxed them, and sent them to a Richmond silversmith to be melted down. The melted silver was to be recast into eight smaller cups in the form of a model Jefferson designed and sent to his silversmith. The cups, engraved with Wythe's and Jefferson's initials, were not put upon a shelf; rather they were used often by Mr. Jefferson until his death in 1826, and then by his children and grandchildren.

The story of the Jefferson cups is the story of American democracy. Like Jefferson, modern day Americans are also the beneficiaries of a gift from colonial Virginians — only our gift is a republic.

IN MY ANALOGY to young Virginians, I explain that like Wythe's silver, the metal that forms the chalice of our great nation has been weakened. This has been done not by barbarians at the gate, but by division within. The single greatest test Americans face in the first decades of the 21st century is that of renewing our public life here at home. If we are able to learn to trust one another, across the thickening lines of political ideology, economic status, race and faith, there are few challenges we cannot meet.

The best solution, I believe, is to exchange the bitter pill of partisanship for the thoughtful seeds of bipartisan statesmanship. We must demand that our public officials take the less-traveled road of cooperation and reject the temptations of demagoguery. We must replace the politics of division and exclusion with a practice of unification and inclusion. We must value ideas instead of ideology, hard work instead of harsh words, optimism instead of opportunism.

These are not just pretty words. The challenges we face in our community are substantial, but, working together, we can ensure that every one of us has the opportunity to pursue our highest educational aspirations, to walk in our neighborhoods without fear of harm, to spend time at our breakfast and dinner tables with family instead of stuck in traffic and to afford to live in our neighborhoods.

We have some role models we can follow on this path. Democratic Gov. Mark Warner and Republican State Sen. John Chichester are examples of individuals willing to lead in this direction. As those gentlemen step out of their respective leadership roles we must choose new leaders with similar courage.

Never in our history has the opportunity been so ripe for change. Beginning in 2007, America will commence a 10-year celebration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. That year will also mark 200 years since two magnificent silver chalices were left as a legacy to one bold Virginian. As the eyes of the world watch Virginia, let them see not a museum of dusty ideals, but a renewed commitment to modern statesmanship that can still light a path for the nation.