Friday, November 19, 2010

Howard Baker, Civility, and a Bygone Era


I had the privilege of delivering a lecture earlier this week as part of a conference honoring the 85th birthday of former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. The conference took place at the University of Tennessee at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. The center is housed in an amazing new facility on the University of Tennessee campus, archives a number of important political papers, and has a really interesting museum of Tennessee political history and the career of Howard Baker.

The conference was a stark reminder of a bygone era in American politics when our governmental institutions worked and where our elected officials could argue and debate but in the end come together to find solutions and come to agreement for the greater good. In the current era of hyperpartisanship and ideological zealotry, individuals like Howard Baker and even Ronald Reagan would have their ideological credentials and party loyalty constantly questioned. But the type of leadership Baker exuded is something the current era desperately needs as the country faces daunting challenges, yet the political system is paralyzed as governing has given was to constant campaigning. There are few real statesman left.

In 1998, at the invitation of then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), Baker delivered an address to the U.S. Senate titled "On Herding Cats" in which he imparted his philosophy of leadership. It's an address that every member of the incoming 112th Congress should read, especially the leadership. The Congress, and the country, would be a better place if Baker's view of political leadership became the norm and not the exception.

Here is a snippet:

"Very often in the course of my 18 years in the Senate, and especially in the last eight years as Republican Leader and then Majority Leader, I found myself engaged in fire-breathing, passionate debate with my fellow Senators over the great issues of the times: civil rights, Vietnam, environmental protection, Watergate, the Panama Canal, tax cuts, defense spending, the Middle East, relations with the Soviet Union, and dozens more. But no sooner had the final word been spoken and the last vote taken than I would usually walk to the desk of my most recent antagonist, extend a hand of friendship, and solicit his report on the next issue for the following day. People may think we're crazy when we do that. Or perhaps they think our debates are fraudulent to begin with, if we can put our passion aside so quickly and embrace our adversaries so readily. But we aren't crazy and we aren't frauds. This ritual is as natural as breathing here in the Senate, and it is as important as anything that happens in Washington or in the country we serve, for that matter. It signifies that, as Lincoln said, 'We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies.' It pulls us back from the brink of rhetorical, intellectual, and even physical violence that, thank God, has only rarely disturbed the peace of the Senate. It is what makes us America and not Bosnia. It is what makes us the most stable government on Earth, and not another civil war waiting to happen. We are doing the business of the American people. We do it every day. We have to do it with the same people every day. And if we cannot be civil to one another, and if we stop dealing with those with whom we disagree, or that we don't like, we would soon stop functioning altogether."

2 comments:

Craig Wesson said...

Civility in politics would be a noble goal to strive for if everyone didn’t have a different definition for it. It’s true, we cannot allow ourselves to be torn apart by partisan conflict, but I feel the prescribed solution called “bipartisanship” is a cure worse than the disease. Bipartisanship has become a code word for one side ceding its principles to the party favored by the media, even James Madison was not in favor of compromise that forced people to give up their principles. I think it’d be great if the new leadership heard Mr. Baker’s speech with one alteration: We’re friends but representatives first, and friendship cannot come before the will of our constituents. Congratulations for being able to attend his birthday, he’s a good man.

DC said...

I agree that civility is not the same as bipartisanship. It is a goal we should all strive for, not only in politics. Reasonable people can differ. No one has a monopoly on the truth. Baker's point was that he always extended the hand of friendship even to those whom he strongly disagreed with. That was the grease that allowed the Senate to run during his reign.

I agree that "bipartisanhip" should not mean a party ceding its principles to the other party; however, there is much ground in the middle. The Reagan-Bush 41 era proved this. The Eisenhower-JFK era proved this. Can you imagine Democrats rejecting the INF Treaty for the sole purpose of denying Reagan a victory? I can't. They wouldn't. Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and other Republican stalwarts support the New START Treaty yet people like Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl are holding it hostage because of partisan politics and wanting to deny Obama a victory. That is petty partisanship that puts the good of the country below that of the good of the party.

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