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Avoiding ‘scurvy extremes’

March 26, 2012
By Tony Hall , Lake George Mirror

"What do angry men ail, to rail so against moderation? Doth it not look as if they were going to some scurvy Extreme, that is too strong to be digested by the more considering part of mankind?" wrote George Savile, the Marquis of Halifax, whose portrait hangs in our office. Halifax was writing about English politics in the 17th century, but he could easily be writing about the Republican primaries.

The candidates' "scurvy Extremes, too strong to be digested by the more considering part of mankind," have already alienated at least one Republican official, our representative in the New York State Assembly, Teresa Sayward. After announcing that she would retire from the Assembly rather than seek re-election, Sayward said, "If I had to vote today, I'd vote for Obama. I truly think the candidates for the Republican side would take women back decades."

Introduced to politics by another Essex County Republican, former state chairman Sandy Treadwell, Sayward is among the last of that vanishing species, the moderate Republican. She broke ranks with the GOP when its views drifted too far from prevailing opinion, as when, for example, the party opposed same-sex marriage. Republicans in the state Senate now tend to agree with Sayward on that issue, if only because they fear losing their majority in that house.

Article Photos

Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward
(Enterprise file photo)

Expediency, however, is not the only, or even the best, argument for moderation. Halifax, as it happens, provides us with one.

Halifax played a critical role in every event of significance from the restoration of Charles II to the creation of the parliamentary regime. But he never acted consistently on behalf of one faction. Rather, he switched sides, moving back and forth between the party of the king and the party of Parliament. For that he earned the title of "trimmer." Instead of quarreling with the name, Halifax embraced it, explaining, "This word signifieth no more than this, that if men are together in a boat, and one part would weigh it down on one side, another would make it lean to the contrary; there is a third opinion. Those who conceive it would do well, if the boat went even, without endangering the passengers." Halifax, in other words, was guided not by opportunism but from the reasoned belief that extremism in defense of any dogma threatens the common good. He trimmed in order to keep the ship of state on an even course, the ultimate goal of every moderate.

In our time, the late U.S. senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, played a similar role. Throughout his long career, Moynihan was accused of deviating from the party line, whether that line belonged to his own Democratic Party or the informal party of neo-conservatives which he helped to found. But he himself never wavered from his commitment to political and social equality, and his belief that traditional institutions were the best instruments for securing that.

Our political traditions grow weaker the farther people like Moynihan fade from view. Of greater importance, without such people in office, our political future looks increasingly grim.


This originally appeared as an editorial in the March 23 issue of the Lake George Mirror.



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