These days of so much political vitriol being directed at whoever is not on the side of the vitriol-spewer, makes it easy to turn away from the negativity and forget that it doesn’t have to be this way.
I can even forgive our younger citizens for wondering what the founding fathers were thinking when they created Congress as a deliberative body that would actually make laws to govern and, hopefully, provide for the general welfare of its citizens. After all, we’ve all witnessed the last four years of a mostly gridlocked Congress, divided between the party who believes Barack Obama is our rightful president and the other whose goal is to question his legitimacy and wage the 2012 presidential campaign.
Those of us still tuned in have seen a tragicomedy of a President seeking to find a bi-partisan compromise by advocating the other side’s ideas, only to find that side quickly jumping away from an idea they re-brand as downright socialistic. And the idea of negotiation involving some giving and taking in order to reach an acceptable compromise? Compromise is now a treasonous offense in some books and the term “negotiation” has been redefined to mean “demand everything you want and, whatever you do, do not budge.”
Last weekend, courtesy of a talk by George Bristol at the Texas Book Festival, I was reminded of the days when Congress was functional, members treated each other, and the President, with respect, and worked together to hammer out compromises and legislation that would benefit the people of this country, not political positions. Some of you will remember how it was: one member of Congress would vote for legislation sponsored by another member on the opposing side of the aisle in exchange for help with his own sponsored legislation. We call it horse tradin’ in this part of the country. It used to be called negotiation.
George Bristol had a front row seat to this phenomenon, working most of his adult life for politicians in Washington and Texas. Although he came to talk about the preservation of our parklands and the political realities of those efforts, at some point, an audience member asked him to share his thoughts about the loss of civility in Congress. Mr. Bristol noted, without a certain amount of sadness, that the people inhabiting public office today are
simply a different breed. He explained that men like Jake Pickle, Bob Dole, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and Lloyd Bentsen were individuals who may have differed politically, but they shared some important traits that allowed for the kind of civility we used to see in Congress. Specifically, these men had lived through the depression and most had fought in WW II, many with the lifelong scars of this commitment to their country. Accordingly, when they sat down to talk about legislation, they had a genuine respect for one another – the respect of having endured the same hardships.
To prove his point, he referred us to former Senator Bob Dole’s letter in tribute to George McGovern, the former Democratic U.S. Senator who died last week at the age of 90. After I got home, I found the letter.
I never thought I’d thank Bob Dole for anything, but his words are a wonderful gift to all of us who hunger for dignity and respect among our public officials. I share with you Senator Dole’s letter:
George McGovern, the Man Who Never Gave up
by BOB DOLE , Special to the Washington Post. October 22, 2012
When I learned that George McGovern was nearing the end of his remarkable life, I couldn’t help but think back to the day in June 1993 when both of us attended the funeral of former first lady Pat Nixon, in Yorba Linda, Calif. After the service, George was asked by a reporter why he should honor the wife of the man whose alleged dirty tricks had kept him out of the White House. He replied, “You can’t keep on campaigning forever.”
That classy remark was typical of George, a true gentleman who was one of the finest public servants I had the privilege to know.
I am sure there are some who were surprised by the long friendship that George and I shared. After all, before his death this weekend at age 90, he was a proud and unapologetic liberal Democrat and I am a lifelong Republican. As chairman of the Republican Party, I did what I could to ensure the defeat of his 1972 run for the White House. When the election was over, however, George and I knew that we couldn’t keep on campaigning forever. We also knew that what we had in common was far more important than our different political philosophies.
Both of us were guided by the values we learned growing up in the plains of the Midwest – he in Mitchell, S.D., and me in Russell, Kan. Our lives were also transformed by the experience of wearing the uniform of our country during World War II.
We would both come to understand that our most important commonality – the one that would unite us during and after our service on Capitol Hill – was our shared desire to eliminate hunger in this country and around the world. As colleagues in the 1970s on the Senate Hunger and Human Needs Committee, we worked together to reform the Food Stamp Program, expand the domestic school lunch program and establish the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
More than a quarter-century later, with political ambitions long behind us, we joined together again. Soon after President Bill Clinton named George ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in 1998, he called to ask for my help in strengthening global school feeding, nutrition and education programs. We jointly proposed a program to provide poor children with meals at schools in countries throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.
In 2000, President Clinton authorized a two-year pilot program based on our proposal, and in 2002, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. Since its inception, the program has provided meals to 22 million children in 41 countries.
In recent years, George and I had several occasions to get together and reflect on our lives, our political careers and our respective presidential campaigns. No matter how many times we replayed it, he never did defeat President Nixon and I never did defeat Bill Clinton. We agreed, however, that the greatest of life’s blessings cannot be counted in electoral votes.
In 2008, George and I were humbled to be named the co-recipients of the World Food Prize. As we were called on stage to accept the award, we once again reached across the aisle, walking to the podium literally arm-in-arm. I began my acceptance remarks by saying that “The good news is that we finally won something. It proves that you should never give up.”
There can be no doubt that throughout his half-century career in the public arena, George McGovern never gave up on his principles or in his determination to call our nation to a higher plane. America and the world are far the better because of him.
Rest in peace, Senator McGovern. Thanks, Senator Dole, for reminding us of the good that can be accomplished once our political leaders take down the campaign banners.