NASA is keen on training its personnel. I kept a list of all the training classes they sent me to take through the years. Single spaced, the list of just the titles of the classes takes a page and a half. Seems like I should have learned something! There were classes in software development and testing, classes in engineering topics such as stress corrosion prevention, classes in management and supervision. But the best class was in Washington, DC in a conference room in one of the Capitol’s office buildings. Legislative Operations was the name. There were lectures and featured speakers including congressional staffers and lobbyists, political science professors, and various NASA officials. We got to observe some committee hearings, discuss our observations, and we got to make the rounds on Capitol Hill visiting congressional offices. All of this in the name of helping us understand how things really get done in Washington and how it affects our agency.
But the best and most memorable part of the class was a lecture by history/poli sci professor from GWU who explained to us how all this mess was really Oliver Cromwell’s fault.
I have told you before that I was forced to take a history course in college. I picked “History of the Modern World” thinking it would be a current events class. Turns out the ‘modern world’ in the classification of professional historians is anything that happened from the Renaissance to well, maybe a hundred years ago. But we didn’t even make it to the American Civil War, too recent! We studied the English Civil War – something I had no idea existed. In case you missed the class, there was war between the English factions who wanted either more power for the Parliament (by extension, the common people) and those who wanted more power for the King (and the nobility). Over a decade of fighting between the Roundheads and Cavaliers (you can look it up) resulted in the triumph of the New Model Army, the Puritans, andthe Parliamentarian faction. The King lost his head over that one. When we later studied the French Revolution, some of the similarities were striking. Professional historians will critique my two sentence summary of a pivotal period in English history, but that is the gist of what I remember.
This turbulent period ended with a fellow named Oliver Cromwell being proclaimed the “Lord Protector” – which is another way of saying he became absolute dictator. Times were grim with the Puritan Major Generals enforcing all kinds of social restrictions on the people. After about a decade, Oliver Cromwell died, and quietly the people threw off the Puritan restrictions and invited the King in exile back.
All this happened in the second half of the 1600’s. Just about a hundred years later a group of Englishmen who colonized British North America tried to write a constitution that would organize a new government. The example of what happened a century earlier was recent memory for them. Firmest of the principles for the new government was that there should be no Oliver Cromwells. No one should be able to exercise absolute power in the new government. Instead there would be a system of checks and balances on power, and an ingenious way of guaranteeing that nothing would get done unless there was compromise between the factions. No simple majority could ride roughshod over a numerically inferior group. Consensus, compromise, and limits were to be the hallmark of the new government.
So when we complain about nothing getting done in Washington, the professor concluded, we should all blame Oliver Cromwell. After all, if he had not set the example of how an absolute dictator establishes power, our forefathers might not have built a government which protects against it. Seems they thought that efficiency in government should take back seat to more important principles. It appears they succeeded.