Saturday, January 10, 2015

A LITTLE CHRISTMAS POLITICAL CHEER: FOND MEMORIES OF OLD-STYLE POLITICS

By Ronald T. Fox  

(NOTE:  An earlier version of this essay was sent in error, so I'm re-submitting)


Ok, I admit it. I’ve become a political cynic. It’s easy to get jaded when your governing system is completely dysfunctional and the political party you’ve believed in has strayed from its core principles. The partisan divide has become obscenely wide and rigid. Partisanship has always characterized American politics, but perhaps never so much as in our present era. Political opponents rarely talk to each other, let alone collaborate to move legislation. I didn’t think I’d ever say it, but I long for a return to that old style politics when politicians fought it out on principle in the day, but got together after hours to make political deals. This is how law-making got done. It required mutual respect, trust and willingness to compromise. Above all, it required a commitment to the general good.  Sadly,  these days are long gone. 

Last month I travelled back to an earlier political era. I was invited to a Christmas party by Bob White, founding partner in California Strategies, a prominent California planning and advocacy group. Before founding California Strategies in 1997, White had served as Pete Wilson’s chief-of-staff when he was an assemblyman, mayor of San Diego, U.S. senator and governor. Bob and I were fraternity brothers at San Diego State University (SDSU) in the early 1960s. His brother was the singer in my college rock-and-roll band. We used to travel to gigs in White’s 1952 Ford station wagon (our equipment was rather primitive, as was his car). I worked in his campaign for associated student body president at SDSU. I wrote a couple of campaign songs for the campaign, changing lyrics to the Beatle songs All My Loving and I Saw Her Standing There, but to no avail; he lost the election.

White and I have been long-time political adversaries: he on the right and me on the left. In those early days I was righteous about my politics. I knew I had all the answers and simply could not understand how anyone could disagree with the facts, logic and moral purity or my positions. Bob was a 1960’s conservative Republican. He believed in limited government and fiscal constraint, but he preached tolerance on personal lifestyle choices and supported protecting the environment, within reason. He was no friend of taxes, but understood that government needed revenue to function smoothly. This philosophy lent itself to finding common ground across political lines. Bob became a consummate builder of bipartisan coalitions.

Forging a broad range of personal relationships with allies, to be sure, but also with adversaries in and out of government was Bob’s modus operandi. Nurturing relationships came naturally to him. He had an engaging personality and an extraordinary ability to judge policy and talent in people. As Wilson’s chief operating officer he made hundreds of appointments. Their long, and he believes very successful, careers in public service are a source of great pride to him.

White’s bridge-building, appointment prerogatives, and closeness to Wilson enabled him to exert a great deal of influence over policy. The California Journal called him “the most powerful unelected figure in California government.” He preferred to work behind the scenes.

To White politics was personal. I recall he had a little black book that contained an alphabetical listing of virtually every political person he ever met. It listed names, college education, employment background, family facts—information that could be useful later. He committed the information to memory, and when he ran into someone he knew, he would always ask about the wife, the kids, or how the job was going. Bob was among the best at nurturing relationships across the partisan divide. He had little time for ideologues—hopeless dreamers he thought them, people who would never accomplish anything. He valued goal-oriented doers.

Bob White thrived in an era when politics resonated in bars, restaurants, all-night poker games and social gatherings. Politicians who were adversaries during the day were often night-time friends. In these settings, partisanship was set aside.  The challenge was to find common ground, which wasn’t so difficult when mutually respectful adversaries, who had fought the good legislative fight during the day, got together at night to get something done.  It was about the art of the deal. Some of the most important decisions in our history were made in such settings. The tradition goes back a long way. I recall that a momentous compromise that gave the federal government fiscal authority over the states was forged at a dinner at Thomas Jefferson’s house, attended by political rivals James Madison and Alexander Hamilton (see Founding Brothers, by Joseph J. Ellis, Ch. 2).

Such fraternizing rarely occurs anymore. If a contemporary Republican congressman was seen fraternizing with a member of the opposition party, he would likely incur the wrath of party leaders and a Tea Party challenger in the next primary election. This is what things have come to. It used to be the key to getting elected and governing well was an engaging personality, an ability to read people, and solid negotiating skills. Such attributes worked well for such notable politicians like Dan Rostenkowski, Tip O’Neill, Bob Dole, Everett Dirksen, and, yes, Ted Kennedy. Today a premium is placed on one’s ability to fund raise and work the press, and a willingness to tow the party line (more so for Republicans than Democrats). These are hardly formulas for good governance.

I used to deride back-room deal making. I thought our elected officials should act transparently according to facts, reason, and basic human decency. But politics didn’t work that way. Policy choices weren’t about what was rational; they reflected what was possible.  I resented lowest common denominator outcomes. When compromise was over principle, it left a bitter taste in my mouth. This is how it was for many in the 1960’s idealists.  We believed in our way or the highway.

I still consider myself a principled person, but I now recognize there are many shades of right and wrong. Recognizing that political perspectives are shaped by life experiences and personal situations, I’ve become less inclined to be judgmental. I still value the collective good, but now embrace a broader sense of what this means. Accordingly, I’m more willing to accept less than ideal outcomes, especially in light of the current gridlock in our governing system.

The Christmas party teased up memories of a bygone era I used to shun. There were Republicans and Democrats, old politicos with long distinguished careers in public service, top government officials, heads of departments, prominent lobbyists, UC trustees, and incumbents and newly elected representatives. Nearly all present paid homage to Bob. He sat in a chair exuding his usual confidence and self-assurance and they came to him: big shots and smaller shots, conservatives and liberals, many who owed their careers to a Bob appointment or personal recommendation. Many were people he mentored.

Men shook his hand and women kissed his cheek. Drawing on his invaluable black book, which was now permanently ensconced in his brain, Bob asked each person about their job, their family, and, with some, about a political project they were working on. He had something nice to say about every person. Here was the personal touch on display and he was a master at it. As the head of a California small business association (the NFIB) said to me, Bob made people feel they were important and that he cared about them. It was an extraordinary thing to witness.

As I strolled around the room, sampling the abundant food and libations, I overheard a lot of political talk—about specific bills before the legislature, policy positions, and strategies. Ideas were being shared. I couldn’t help but sense that state business was transacting. I’m not sure if it was for better or worse, but it was nice to see the interaction. This was politics in the old-fashioned way. I realized how much I missed it, my earlier aversion notwithstanding.  It brought me a little Christmas cheer.

I don’t wish to glorify social deal making, which, after all, involves elites interacting with elites. To be sure many dirty deals have been struck in such settings. But I couldn’t help but contrast what I witnessed to the adversarial politics that have come to dominate law making in America. Can you picture Republicans and Democrats in Washington getting together for an all-night poker game or even a Christmas party? Fat chance! Bob himself lamented to me that such gatherings were rare even in California. He didn’t say it, but I sensed he longed for the good old days when politicians of good will gathered and ultimately found common ground.

I still adhere to progressive core principles of standing up for working people, confronting income inequality, fighting corporate and Wall Street abuses of power, insuring that the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, and promoting human rights--principles supported by a large majority of the American people, I might add. It pains me to see them compromised, but in the real world compromise is necessary if progress, however, small, is to be achieved. I now understand that you have to crawl before you can walk.

We need spirited battles between parties and special interests representing business and working people. They should fight it out in the political arena, but in the end find something to agree on. That’s how politics used to get done. It can happen again if politicians rise above partisan conformity.  If they won't do this on their own, American citizens must make them do it.

I understand that dogmatism and intolerance makes compromise difficult, and I worry that money in politics has created a playing field that marginalizes ordinary folk, but it’s still possible to overcome these disadvantages through determined mass mobilization. It’s happened before and it can again. Our current crop of public officials has not shown much propensity for good will. That’s why we need to hold their feet to the fire.












1 comment:

  1. Let's not get too sentimental about the old days. A lot of bad deals were cut that might not have survived the light of day.

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