Monday, May 09, 2005

Longing for Statesmen

In 1977, I graduated from the University of Vermont and moved home to Washington D.C. to work for U. S. Senator Edward W. Brooke. I spent a little less than one year there, working out of the legislative assistants’ offices and with the press secretary. Most days, I (and the other young staffers who were clued into this) would listen to the monitor that televised the floor activity in the Senate. When certain members with oratory skill took the floor, the word would quickly spread, and there would be a migration of senate staffers from the Russell and Dirksen buildings (Hart had not been built yet) to the Senate gallery. There, we would occasionally be treated to displays of extraordinary oratory, parliamentary order, and statesmanship.

On one day in particular,
Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D, NY), in his first year in the Senate, held the floor in a debate over the Panama Canal Treaty. I don’t recall with whom he was debating, but I do recall it being the finest demonstration of public oratory I had ever seen. When he finished, the Senators present, and the entire gallery, delivered an ovation.

That debate was also notable in my memory because it was just that -- A statesmanlike debate. Members listened, speakers yielded the floor for questions from members, and the questions were answered, directly, with intellectual honesty. And while there were no doubt exceptions, I had the sense that the same general demeanor of professional courtesy and collegiality extend off the Senate floor and into every back room on Capitol Hill. I was reassured of this by Bill Hildenbrand, who was then Secretary to the Minority (and my father’s secretary’s boyfriend), and obviously in a position to know.

Leaving that chamber, that day, I had the first thought that I wanted to be in politics.

As I entered law school in fall of 1978, Ed Brooke was fighting for his political life against Congressman Paul Tsongas. Brooke was in the middle of a nasty divorce in which his wife and daughter were engaged in a concerted public campaign to ruin him with allegations of financial improprieties and adultery. Throughout the entire campaign, Tsongas never once uttered a word about Brooke’s personal travails. (Say what you want about the man’s politics, but Tsongas’ conduct during that campaign was irreproachable.)

Eight years later, in 1985, I began my first of six years in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Now, the Massachusetts Legislature can never be compared with the august body of the U. S. Congress (or anything with the word “august” attached to it). There were plenty of members who had only one talent in life, getting re-elected. And there were a (very) few members who were just rotten human beings.

But for the most part, there was collegiality, mutual respect, fair play (if mixed with occasional gamesmanship), and some very good floor debate.

There was also, unfortunately, chicanery. With the democrats holding an enormous numerical advantage, all the republicans had was “the microphone,” so that when one of the many egregious pieces of legislation was being pushed through, we could spend hours on the floor, making sure that the press across Massachusetts (and the dozen people statewide who were watching it on Channel 44) could not help but know what was happening (even if they did nothing about it). To keep us from having the floor, democrat members would yield to one another, but not to us, squelching any debate, and then force a vote, and snicker at us with their smug self-congratulations.

It seems to have been some time during my legislative tenure, 1985-1991, that national politics began in earnest to lose its sense (or even pretense) of decorum.

It was during that time that Newt Gingrich entered the Republican leadership and spearheaded the ethics attack that drove Jim Wright from the Speaker’s office in 1989. [When the Republicans took over after the 1994 races, Gingrich ascended to Speaker in 1987.] In 1988, George H. W. Bush defeated our own Mike Dukakis in a nasty presidential campaign in which Lee Atwater single-handedly remade the definition of political hardball. [During that campaign, George Bush and Lee Atwater came to Boston for a fundraising event. I spoke with Atwater for a few minutes. I was in the middle of a tough re-election campaign against a very unpleasant young man. Atwater told me to “kick him in the balls and don’t let him get up until November 5th.”]

Keeping a promise to myself, I left the legislature (and any political office ever again) in January of 1991. I became an interested spectator to the ensuing, increasingly bitter and acrimonious national political discourse.

Now I am not saying that Newt Gingrich and Lee Atwater “started it,” but the bottom line is, once one side takes the gloves off, it’s hard for either side to put them back on.

And I think that has to be done.

I do not find one person in ten that is not sick to death of the fever pitched, finger-pointing, eye-poking food fight that is the United States Congress (and politics generally from coast to coast). More often than not, public debate lacks any hint of intellectual honesty. It lacks the merest common civility. It lacks the faintest memory of statesmanship. It’s all about “staying on message,” scoring points, bringing the enemy down, exercising raw political power for the achievement of (increasingly) partisan gains. It’s about absolutes, with no compromise.

The present deadlock over judicial appointments is just the latest example. It is reported today that Senator Frist has taken the position that he will
make no deal that does not include all of President Bush’s judicial nominees being approved.

That’s not a deal, it’s an ultimatum.

Now I’m faintly encouraged that one of Frist’s leadership colleagues would publicly
advocate for compromise and the recognition of minority rights in the Senate. Yesterday morning on ABC’s This Week, Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel:

"But you can't give up a minority rights tool in the interest of the country, like the filibuster...

"We would, I think, debase our system and fail our country if we don't do this...

"The United States Senate is a minority rights institution unique in the world, and I don't think either side wants to give that up. Now, the other part of this, which I also believe strongly, is that presidents deserve votes on their nominees."

But he noted that Republicans prevented votes on many of President Clinton's choices for the federal bench.

"The Republicans' hands aren't clean on this either. What we did with Bill Clinton's nominees about 62 of them we just didn't give them votes in committee or we didn't bring them up."

How refreshing, such candor, and on national television, too.

I long for the return of the day when comments like Senator Hagel’s are not regarded as heresy because they are “off the reservation;” when a legislator’s circumspect analysis of an issue is met with appreciation and intellectual respect, not partisan approbation or cynicism.

When I listened in 1978 to Senator Moynihan, one of the greatest liberals of his time, I knew that his politics were not mine. But I deeply admired his skill, his intellect, and his devotion to our Country. With the exercise of a deeper perspective on all of our parts, perhaps this would not be such a rare occasion, and Congress could begin again to resemble a great deliberative body where the rights of the majority and the minority are respected and observed.

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