Let’s mute the shrill cries for a moment. Let’s silence our calls for bipartisanship amid our off-with-your-heads appeals against “professional politicians.” Let’s pause. Let’s ask: Who were the real bipartisans? Who greased the wheels, smoothed ruffled feathers, and kept the government running? Who had that uncanny instinct that smells out opportunities for leadership even while they represented their constituents? Who knew that today’s majority can be tomorrow’s minority and that a popular decision today might be tomorrow’s political suicide pill? Who had that forgotten trait called “charm,” an envious characteristic when possessed by someone with integrity and which Webster’s Dictionary defines as “a quality that attracts or delights”?
Reel back. Think of the doers, the practical idealists. We stood in awe of their savvy and acumen. Set aside opinions on policies and view two veritable artists: the late President Ronald Reagan and the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Those two went at it in the 1980’s. President Reagan knew how to cast vision, rally public support, negotiate, parley and usher his proposals through Congress despite their unpopularity in opinion polls. His hand-picked team moulded a new creature, “the Reagan Democrat,” and deftly played insider politics even as they railed against Washington. Reagan had so many friends he didn’t need an enemy’s list.
Reagan could have rammed his entire agenda through Congress if it were not for O’Neill, a political genius who sincerely disagreed with the president’s policies. They debated, argued, and hammered at each other – but they did it with civility. They didn’t assault each other’s personal character even when they vehemently disagreed. And – get this – they liked each other. As Paul Bedard says, “there were fights galore … ONeill made sure of that. But there were also a lot of successful deals because of the friendship that the Gipper and Tip built trumped partisanship.” Each respected and cared for the other. When Reagan was shot and clinging to life, O’Neill was one of the first praying and crying by his bedside. Reagan once said this of the speaker at a 1986 dinner: “Our friendship is testimony to the political system that we’re part of and the country we live in, a country which permits two not-so-shy and not-so-retiring Irishmen to have it out on the issues rather than on each other or their countrymen.”
I mingled among some of the real political pro’s as a newspaper reporter in the early 1980’s – and I was startled. I grudgingly admired them. They smiled through brutal working hours and venomous invectives. They turned away lucrative private sector jobs because they had a keen sense of service and, believe it or not, patriotism. The good ones – who resembled Reagan and O’Neill, as well as Utah Republican Senator Orin Hatch, the late Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, former Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley, and former Republican Minority Leader Bob Michel – had hearts of gold and nerves of steel. Each knew the difference between a political adversary and a personal enemy; they easily distinguished disrespect from disagreement; and they relished the pure fun of debate. They were hilarious. They loved people. They gave politics a good name, if not a great name. Best of all, they knew when the campaign was over and when it was time to govern.
Reagan, O’Neil, Kennedy, Foley, and Michel were good. Very good.
I’ve come to mourn the loss of those political professionals: the ones with a knack for people and an instinct for resolution. I’m now sad that our nation fell under the spell of anti-government propaganda in the 1990’s and voted many of them out of office (to be frank, Reagan himself deserves some blame: he bad-mouthed Washington for eight years even while he became its chief insider). Hatch is still there, but Kennedy – often his partner despite their differing philosophies – is dead. Foley was voted out and Michel retired. And Reagan and O’Neill have parted this mortal coil. Their political descendants have not done them justice.
Considering the results we see from today’s rank amateurs, it’s time we admit our mistake and get the professionals back.
If you want to see two real professionals, listen to and watch the interview Judy Woodruff did with Erskin Bowles, a Democrat and retired Republican Senator Alan Simpson. Look at how they are cooperating. Look at their humor.
For further reading:
Paul Bedard, “Washington Whispers: “Tip O’Neill and Reagan and Model for Breaking Partisan Gridlock,” US News & World Report, February 17, 2010, http://www.usnews.com/blogs/washington-whispers/2010/02/17/tip-oneill-and-reagan-and-model-for-breaking-partisan-gridlock.html.
Jim Kessler and Anne Kim, “Learn One From The Gipper,” The Atlantic, April 17, 2009, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/04/learn-one-from-the-gipper/13143/.
Chris Matthews, Life’s A Campaign: What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation, and Success, Random House, 2007.