This blog has never served as a media review, nor will it so serve now. Read: but coming. The but: a point made almost longingly and certainly with an impatience bordering on indignance last evening on CNN’s John King USA. This writer missed part of the segment, but found the gist of it clear. A congresswoman from New York, a Democrat, has decided to found a new caucus, one based on the notion of bipartisan civility revolving around a simple social act: sitting down over a beer or whatever and talking.
They used to do that easily and regularly in Washington. As the congresswoman said, such interaction occurred after legislative hours and with no agenda other than sociability. The habit reflected a politics of constructive disagreement. We have descended into a politics of hate. As the Democratic political consultant Conrad Belcher pointed out, somebody elects these screaming memies—i.e., we live in a culture of hatred—but that seems only partly the point and merely states the obvious, however unfortunately. If Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Illinois and a Tea Party darling) could discover common personal ground with, say, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont, and an avowed socialist), perhaps he would stop whining about socialist plots to take over the government and start acting like an adult.
My first experience of Washington came as an only slightly stealthy Democrat on a Republican internship designed to introduce high school students to the workings of the Hill. True, we met with nothing but Republican Congressmen and Senators, including Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona), a precursor of the Tea Party. And yet they all, Goldwater included, made it clear that they took for granted the necessity of working respectfully with the opposition. And they all had plans for a dinner party at least one evening that week at which they would have a Democrat within conversational distance. They took civility as part of the legislative landscape.
I came away from that week deeply impressed. We spent some time as a group in the office of a Rep. McCorkle (R-Nebraska), a friend of Rep. Stuart McKinney (R-Connecticut), the latter a beloved and widely respected moderate lawmaker when such a one could buck his leadership and not have to run for political cover. We then had a free afternoon, and I took up a staffer in McCorkle’s office on her invitation to come back for a while.
In the middle of my licking envelopes to send to constituents in Lincoln, the staffer interrupted me. The congressman wanted to meet me. This extremely nice man encouraged me to work as a volunteer for his Democratic colleague, Rep. William R. Cotter (D-Connecticut) who represented my district, or rather my parents’ since my first vote would not come till the following year. No irony in the suggestion, just generous collegiality. I wonder how many such interactions occur now in such a tone.
The media alternately marveled and caviled at the banality of the President’s having Skip Gates and a Cambridge policeman to the South Lawn of the White House for beers to soothe a notable case of incivility, by both Gates and the cop. The congresswoman from New York clearly sees past the banality of such gestures. Indeed. They allow us to live with each other. And that grace seems notably lacking at the moment.
Chapel Hill, NC
October 26, 2011