Senate Tradition Honors George Washington The U.S. Senate took a step back from regular business for one of its longest-standing traditions Monday, honoring George Washington by having a senator read his farewell address aloud. This year the honor went to Democrat Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
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Senate Tradition Honors George Washington

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Senate Tradition Honors George Washington

Senate Tradition Honors George Washington

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Well, when it comes to Washington, D.C. and politics, Rachel, there's a lot we can talk about today. I mean, it's an election year. There's a second term president faced with an opposition Congress. The U.S. is embroiled in war after five years, and the economy has people on edge, pointing fingers of blame. However, the U.S. Senate took a step back from it all to engage in one of its longstanding traditions - to honor the first president of the United States, George Washington, by having a senator read out aloud from Washington's farewell address. Every year in the Senate Chambers, someone reads the words of Washington, the ones that first appeared in print in 1796. The speaking aloud potion of the program started in 1862.

Now in 2008, the honor went to the junior Senator from Arkansas, Democrat Mark Prior. Here's a bit from the very end of the farewell.

Senator MARK PRIOR (Democrat, Arkansas): (Reading) I anticipate with pleasing expectations that retreat in which I promise myself to realize, without alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, an ever favorite subject - object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors and dangers. George Washington, United States, 19 September, 1796.

STEWART: And Senator Mark Prior joins us now. Good morning, Senator.

Sen. PRIOR: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

STEWART: So how were you chosen to do this? Volunteer, pick names out of a hat? How did that work?

Sen. PRIOR: I think that Harry Reid asked me to do it a few weeks ago. And, you know, it's an honor. It's one of our traditions in the Senate. We have a lot of traditions in the Senate by the way, but it's one of those that the Senate has been doing every year since 1895. They done it - they started during the Civil War and then it kind of went on and off, but finally, 1895, every year since we've been doing it.

STEWART: Now, have you been in the chamber before to hear this being delivered?

Sen. PRIOR: Yes. Last year, I presided went Senator Corker of Tennessee read it. We alternate party year to year. So last year, a Republican of Tennessee did it, this year, a Democrat of Arkansas. And, I tell you, you know, it's 32 pages long, it's 7,641 words long. As I was reading through it a few times before I went up there, I noticed that one sentence was 15 lines long.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Sen. PRIOR: Okay. And so, you know, again, just back in those days, George Washington and his contemporaries, they rode in a different style. They're more verbose, lots more commas and phrases, et cetera in a sentence. So it's a tough read. In fact, one of the things that a lot of school children are surprised to learn about Washington's Farewell Address is he never delivered the address. He wrote it down. Actually, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison helped him with a draft, and then he reworked the speech in his own handwriting and then submitted it to the Congress and it was printed in the Philadelphia papers a few days later.

STEWART: Well, we have a pretty good example of the kind of tongue twisters and linguistic terrain you have to weave through yesterday. Let's take a listen to this little bit of the speech.

Sen. PRIOR: Okay, great.

(Reading) The acceptance of, and continuance hitherto in, the office to which your suffrages have twice called me have been a uniform sacrifice of inclination to the opinion of duty and to the deference for what appeared to be your desire. I constantly hoped that it would have been much earlier in my power, consistently with motives which I was not at liberty to disregard, to return to the retirement from which I had been reluctantly drawn.


How did you breathe, sir?

STEWART: When did you breathe, sir?

Sen. PRIOR: Well, it was hard. I tell you, the truth is, on this address, what you have to do is you really need to read it beforehand. And if you don't understand what that sentence is saying, it is very, very hard to read. You know what I'm saying? Because there's so many phrases and commas and pauses and all of that in there. But nonetheless, you know, the great thing about this speech is that George Washington being the father of our country touches on the major themes - as he left public life, he touches on the major themes that he wants to leave this new nation with. And he really talks about how this young nation needs to have a federal government, how we need to avoid sectionalism. We need to avoid parties. Believe it or not, he talks about partisanship can be a problem. And so many things that he talked about really have rung true for the last 200 years. So…

STEWART: Let's listen to that passage you pointed out, where he talks about avoiding parties and seperationism.

Sen. PRIOR: (Reading) The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissention, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.

STEWART: Now, for folks who know a little bit about your record, you were one of the gang of 14, some of the more moderate senators who kind of have a, hey, let's work together to move this forward…

Sen. PRIOR: Exactly.

STEWART: …sort of point of view. So I'm imagining, that really resonated with you.

Sen. PRIOR: It does. You know, it really does. I think that what President Washington talk about is exactly true for today. And that is he talked about how parties can be useful. There's even a point in the speech, in the address, where he talks about how in a Republic, parties can be useful, they can be beneficial. However, what happens is, oftentimes, is a party really becomes a power base in and of itself. Instead of an avenue for ideas and an avenue for people to come together and work together for common solutions, parties can develop into divisive institutions, which I think is what's happened here in Washington today. I think that's evolved over, you know, a couple of centuries. But what I would hope that we would do, and I think maybe what the 2008 elections will be about, is I would hope we would have a back to basics movement. We would…


Sen. PRYOR: …get back to some of the fundamentals of our democracy and remember, you know, not just some of these words of Washington, but the words of Madison and Jefferson and Hamilton and Adams and many others. So…

STEWART: Senator, we thank you for your time today. Senator Mark Pryor, a Democrat from Arkansas. And congrats for making it through.

Sen. PRYOR: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You're listening to the BPP from NPR News.

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