There’s all kinds of speculation floating around the blogosphere about the source of John McCain’s belligerence earlier today re. Prime Minister Zapatero of Spain (TPM has the details): Sen. McCain had a senior moment, he confused Zapatero of Spain with the Zapatista guerillas of Mexico, he assumed that anyone with a surname like Zapatero must be in cahoots with other shady characters like Chavez and Castro. Any of these are possible, I suppose. But what I think really happened was that Sen. McCain offered an homage to his good friend, George Washington.

I say that because on this day in 1796, Washington retired from public life, publishing his farewell address, a stern lecture from a beloved father figure to his increasingly unruly children, the United States, on how they should comport themselves as a family after his departure from the scene. It is a remarkable — and remarkably wordy — document, including the famous admonition that the nation should “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world”. Senator McCain was there, of course, when his colleague Washington penned his address. And my guess is McCain wanted to remind us today what a great man old George was by kicking a little sand in the face of Spain, demonstrating his capacity to resist “the insidious wiles of foreign influence”. Either that or he’s a doddering old fool who can’t, in those few brief moments he’s left untended, be trusted not to insult our longstanding European allies in front of a member of the foreign press.

Kidding aside, Washington’s address remains a fascinating document, not just for the warnings about foreign entanglements, but also for sections on the corrosive influence of political parties on the body politic, the threat a large military poses to liberty, and the signal importance of maintaining the federal government. Washington was, to a very great extent, the living embodiment of civic virtue, the notion that propertied gentlemen, guided by a love of country, could act dispassionately in the public sphere. These men would, in other words, set aside individual interests in service of the common good. Such a notion sounds quaint to our cynical ears. But Washington, who chose to retire rather than become something like a king, believed virtue was the foundation upon which the republic rested. Still, his farewell address is not a sunny document; it is permeated with anxiety. In it, you can hear the death rattle of civic virtue. It is not a pretty sound.