APPOMATTOX COURTHOUSE, Va.
Steve Garfein sat at the head of a long folding table, his back to a massive white tent intended to hold the thousands of visitors attending the anniversary commemoration of the South’s surrender to the North on April 9, 1865.
Shading his eyes from the bright sun with aviator glasses and a tan safari hat, he sampled a warm funnel cake covered in powdered sugar.
"I’ve never had one of these before," he said, clearly enjoying the decadent confection.
The Vietnam-era veteran and successful businessman was on a personal pilgrimage to this national park and Gettysburg before heading home to Poulsbo, Wash.
Though he never was called up to serve in Vietnam, Garfein, out of Fort Lewis, Wash., led an armored reconnaissance unit and a field artillery battery. "I’ve always felt a connection to the men who fought in the Civil War."
His conversation turned to leadership, honoring the past, the government scandals of the last five years and the country’s future: "I was taught at a young age to value your community and to serve it. We need more emphasis on that from those who want to lead our country.
"And we need to hold those in power in check — stop chasing the unicorns and start chasing and revealing the truth and demanding competency."
A week later, more than two dozen reporters chased the next presidential cycle’s first unicorn — Hillary Clinton — around an Iowa community college on her first official campaign stop.
The optics of that was as comical as a tiny car releasing scores of clowns into a circus ring. But it doesn’t amuse people like Garfein, who wish the media would chase down government corruption and incompetency with the same gusto.
America is about to begin another peaceful switch of power. Who succeeds Barack Obama will not be known for nearly two years, yet the chase after the next "change-agent" is all about the political buzz.
That’s a shame, because Americans want substance and competency. They don’t care if you misspeak; they do care if you don’t own up to it. And they have grown to love the narrative that things will get better with a change in government.
This need for change was not what many of America’s Founders believed, especially those who worked the land and tended to view history as cyclical, according to Curt Nichols, political scientist at the University of Missouri.
He explained their philosophy: "Things tend to go from good to bad to worse before they get better again. And things only got better if a virtuous citizenry worked hard and was willing to sacrifice to make things better."
Timing was everything for these "country" thinkers. They believed, as Shakespeare’s Brutus did, that "there is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries."
Sometimes it is the season to make things better; other times, the context is simply not ripe.
It is hard to tell which type of year 2016 will be because of all the superficial reporting on the little nothings.
Perhaps this explains why politics is so confusing these days and why the disconnect between Middle America and government is so large, Nichols said. "The people live in a world of cyclical decay, where bursts of energy are periodically needed by the virtuous to set things straight again."
Washington, on the other hand, exists in a land of perpetual progress, where recessions don’t hurt the local economy and change is always for the better.
Garfein has "walked the walk" all of his life. As a young man, he was a member of the Hughes Helicopters team that developed the AH-64 Apache for the Defense Department; he eventually started his own business and has re-invested time and skills in his community many times over.
"Leadership starts from the ground up," he said, adding that the country’s next president should come from outside Washington.
Then he stood to go visit the McLean House — "Something great happened there" — where Lee surrendered to Grant and the country began to reunite 150 years ago.
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media ([email protected]).