It was gratifying to see Democrats and Republicans sitting next to each other during President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night (January 26). And it was even more gratifying that no boos or jeers marred this year’s speech. But I am under no illusions that this marks the beginning of a new era of good feeling or bipartisanship. Still, it’s a start, and Obama seemed to be reaching out to Republicans offering to meet them more than halfway.
The truth is the state of our union could be improved immensely by a return of cooperation and compromise—in a word, civility—among our elected officials. And it wouldn’t really be all that hard.
Partisan wrangling and in-fighting are not new. They’ve been with us since the nation was founded, but there seems to be a new intransigence that threatens the union itself.
Susan Alexander, features editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel, summed up the way a lot of us feel about the current situation in an open letter to Senators Alexander and Corker and Congressman Duncan titled “Time to man up, Congress,” published December 6:
What I heard voters clearly say last month [November] is that we’re tired of Washington gridlock. We’re tired of listening to the endless blame game on both sides of the aisle. We’re tired of watching you all care more about the next election cycle than actually getting anything accomplished.
And we are all terribly sick and tired of hot air. …
So I’m asking you Congress folks to put on your big-boy pants, to listen to people, including each other. To tell some uncomfortable truths. And occasionally to shut the hell up.
When I went to Washington in 1967 as newly elected Senator Howard Baker’s press secretary, the nation was already sharply divided over the Vietnam War, race relations and a myriad of other issues. We had gone through the trauma of the assassination of President Kennedy and in a short time would have the double tragedy of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Those were turbulent times that tore at the very fabric of our national identity.
But as divided as the Congress was, there was civility and a spirit of doing what was best for the country that seemed to override in critical moments those partisan concerns.
Senator Baker, even though a freshman senator from a Southern state, quickly became a master at bringing diverse elements together in compromise to get needed legislation passed.
The best example of Baker’s expertise in bringing together opposing sides that I participated in was on the bill that became the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Republicans, led by then Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who also happened to be Baker’s father-in-law, had successfully blocked Democratic efforts to pass an open housing bill in the previous Congress, and it looked as if it would be DOA in the 90th Congress. Baker, with the aid of his legislative assistant, Lamar Alexander, who is now Tennessee’s senior senator, worked tirelessly to bring the parties together, going through draft after draft of a bill that would address the concerns of liberals and conservatives alike. The final version of the bill was put together one afternoon in the minority leader’s office, with Baker, Senators Dirksen, Hugh Scott and Jacob Javits, Lamar, myself, and other staffers sitting on the floor taking typed up substitute paragraphs, cutting out old paragraphs and pasting the new ones into the bill.
The bill passed both houses and was signed into law by President Johnson. It was a victory for the American people, particularly minorities.
We need that kind of cooperation today if we are going to accomplish even half of the ambitious and optimistic goals President Obama set on Tuesday night. Sadly it seems that my friend Lamar did not take to heart the lessons he learned with Baker for today he seems to pander to the most partisan of Republicans to secure his leadership post in the Senate minority.
Baker is a partisan Republican and he firmly believes in the American two-party system, but first and foremost he is a true patriot and he always put the interests of the nation above those of narrow party concerns.
I would join Susan Alexander in urging Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and other legislators to listen to the American people and end the gridlock in Washington before it’s too late. All they have to do is to stop talking long enough to listen—to their colleagues and to the people.