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Washington’s farewell gets personal for retiring Sen. Portman

‘I was trying not to drag it out,’ the Ohio Republican says of his 42-minute showing

Sen. Rob Portman is seen in the Senate subway during the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump on Feb. 9. He read Washington's Farewell Address earlier this week.
Sen. Rob Portman is seen in the Senate subway during the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump on Feb. 9. He read Washington's Farewell Address earlier this week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senators read the words of President George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address each year on the floor of the Senate — it’s an enduring chamber tradition. It was an especially meaningful tradition this year for Sen. Rob Portman.

Washington in his letter to “Friends and Fellow-Citizens” described why he would be leaving a life of public service, something personal to Portman, who has announced he will not run for reelection in 2022.

“He felt like he’d done his duty and it was time for others,” the Ohio Republican said.

The speech bidding the country goodbye was penned by America’s first president weeks before electors cast ballots in the third American presidential election. The campaign was bitterly fought, and it was the first contested election in the country’s history in which political parties played a role.

Washington warned Americans of political dangers to the fledgling country, urging them to put aside their political factions in order to achieve a common national interest. He encouraged the new nation’s future leaders to respect the separation of powers and avoid national debt during times of peace and prosperity.

Some of the subjects Washington touches on feel urgent again right now, as the chamber for the second consecutive year echoes Washington’s words soon after a presidential impeachment trial.

“It’s timeless,” Portman said. “And it’s timely because, you know, here we are in a period of our country’s history when we just came through a contentious election and impeachment and in the middle of a crisis, and people are really divided.”

Portman voted to acquit former President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial, arguing that the Constitution does not allow the Senate to impeach the president once he leaves office. But, he said, his decision in “no way condones the president’s conduct.”

The standing rules of the Senate dictate that the speech be read on the “twenty-second day of February in each year, or if that day shall be on Sunday, then on the day following.” The senator chosen to read the 7,641-word document alternates between political parties.

Florida’s Paula Hawkins set the 39-minute record for fastest reading in 1985, while 1962’s 68-minute reading by West Virginia’s Jennings Randolph took the longest, according to Senate records.

Portman delivered this year’s address in about 42 minutes.

“I was trying not to drag it out, but it’s hard to do it any faster and sort of make it understandable,” he said.

Washington himself did not publicly deliver the address. It was first published on Sept. 19, 1796, in the Philadelphia American Daily Advertiser. Other papers across the country picked it up soon after.

Each senator who reads the speech gets to write in a leather-bound book maintained by the Secretary of the Senate. The earliest entries typically explained the practice and were accompanied by a member’s signature and date, according to Senate records.

In more recent years, the writings have become more personal and sometimes verbose.

Portman said he had planned remarks ahead of time to write in the book but tossed them aside when the moment came. Instead, he wrote about the optimism in Washington’s words and the hope that America’s founding on the bedrock of documents like the Constitution would endure for many generations.

“What I wrote about was that, you know, hope and strength, thanks to founders like him,” he said.

Last year, Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin said it was remarkable how relevant Washington’s words still are today.

“Beginning with his caution to jealously protect the Union from factions, both of geographical and partisan origins, he continues with sage advice about our dealings with foreign nations,” she wrote in her entry, just weeks after Trump’s first impeachment trial.

“I’m grateful that his message is shared every year, to remind us that the Constitution and the Union and our loyalty to each are essential to our liberty, security and pursuit of happiness.”

The speech tradition began in the Senate on Feb. 22, 1862, as a way to boost the country’s spirits during the depths of the Civil War, and the Senate and House started annual readings in 1888 and 1899, respectively.

The House stopped reading it annually in 1984. The Senate, which can eliminate the standing order through unanimous consent or by changing the Senate rules, continues its reading on the anniversary of Washington’s birth on Feb. 22, 1732.

If anything, the speech is more meaningful than ever, said Jim Manley, a former Senate aide.

“Hell, the references to keeping our government together haven’t been this relevant in years,” he said.

Manley, who worked for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, said on the one hand he thinks it’s great that the chamber known for its adherence to tradition continues its annual speech.

“But on the other hand, I remember thinking, especially as a leadership staffer, that once the address began I didn’t have to focus on the floor so much and that I can get other stuff done while my TV was [on] mute.”

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