One of the telltale signs one is slipping into geezerdom is getting emails from people wanting to know about the good old days. As a child, I would sit in rapt awe as my great-grandmother told me stories of cattle drives and cowboys long before even my grandmother was born.
I would look at the old woman in wonder, her skin as thin as parchment, with deep wrinkles in her face. She once told me she was proud of the lines on her face because they came from laughing, and that is a sign of someone who enjoys life.
My great-grandmother passed on four decades ago. I am now a grandfather with laugh lines of my own. Now people ask me about the good old days.
I received a question yesterday about the good-old-days in Washington when my hair was dark, I was running marathons, and I was invincible, or so I thought.
A reader asks, “Bob what was it like when you came to Washington, and everyone worked together for the common good of the Nation?”
Her reference is to a story I like to tell about my very first week in Washington. I was sent to the Hill to talk with Jesse Helms (R-NC) who was the ranking Senate Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Helms was quite a character and thought he should take me under his wing. During our first meeting, he told me “Do you know why we have a Foreign Relations Committee in the US Senate and a Foreign Affairs Committee in the US House?” I had no clue as to why the names were different, but I was about to learn. “It’s because we’re too old to have affairs in the Senate, so we just have relations,” Senator Helms told me, then laughed at his own joke. I did not expect a guy who took to the Senate Floor to rail against everyone to have a sense of humor.
As part my mentoring, he invited his best friend to the meeting, none other than Senator Ted Kennedy, (D-MA). They were one of many Washington odd couples in the 1980’s.
I would love to regale you with stories of civil debates filled with grace and passion; followed by bipartisan meetings to work out compromises. I could tell you dozens of stories about putting personal ambition and ideology aside and thinking about the greater good of society.
I could tell you those stories, but they would be fiction. The good old days of bipartisan cooperation do not exist now and never have existed.
The Helms/Kennedy, Helms/Paul Simon (D-IL), Silvio Conte (R-MA)/Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-MA) relationships are curiosities because they are odd and not the norm.
The best I can tell you is that the climate in the early 80s was somewhat more cordial than it is now. A more accurate statement is that partisan bickering and political extremism has gone from bad to worse and is edging into intolerable. In the mythical good old days, we saw much bad behavior by members of Congress.
Washington has always been a city dedicated to personal ambition, lust for power, and desire for wealth. That has not changed. People make comments about Donald Trump’s narcissism as though this is something new.
It is not new. The Washington swamp creatures, with the scientific classification Politicus Americanus, are notable by their constant cry, “It is all about me.”
In Washington, Republicans and Democrats put on a façade of being civilized to one another. They attend testimonial dinners and joke around with one another. Sometimes we see them at the endless stream of Congressional receptions hosted by lobbying groups having drinks and giving the appearance of collegiality.
The jocular atmosphere outside the bright lights of the TV cameras helps members from murdering each other.
I was lobbying a defense issue in the House of Representatives in the middle 1980s. To my utter dismay, Congressman Bob Dornan (R-CA) had taken up my client’s cause. His jumping on the bandwagon was not good news. I would have preferred a proper mugging than having Dornan as a champion. In fact, a mugging is less painful.
There is no controlling the crazy, which is to say there is no controlling Bob Dornan. Pre-vote debates in Congress are proforma and more for the record than to change minds. A good lobbyist will know the outcome days before the issue comes to a vote. I had done my homework, and I was not concerned.
An anti-military sentiment was widespread in the Democratic Party in those days; a hangover from the Vietnam War. Democrats suffered a severe political burn in that war. Many did not trust, nor want anything to do with the military.
Congressman Tom Downey (D-NY) was a bitter opponent of our provision and despised my client. I mitigated his objections to our provision with other Democrats and was confident going into the floor vote with a comfortable thirty vote margin of victory in my grasp.
Seated in the House Gallery to watch the debate, I knew Downey would be rough on us, but not to worry. He went on his rant, and it was time to move on and wrap this up. Then Bob Dornan took the floor.
Dornan did not like Tom Downey, and the feeling was mutual. My heart sank as I saw the Congressman from Orange County California rise. What would he say? Please, don’t let it be as bad as when he called Director Oliver Stone a Bolshevik enemy, or when he spoke of Soviet journalist Vladimir Posner as a disloyal, betraying little Jew.
My chest tightened as Dornan walked up to Downey and called him a draft dodging little wimp. Dornan then grabbed Downey by the collar. Downey liked to wear bowties, and after being pulled off of Downey, Dornan claimed he was merely adjusting Downey’s tie.
I saw twenty-five votes vanish before my eyes. Congressmen who defected later told me it was not because of the issue. They did not want Dornan to be on the winning side of anything.
If there is any solace in today’s political environment in Congress, at least the personal rhetoric has toned down, and people are not physically attacking one another on the floor of the House and Senate.
When thinking about how fractious our political climate is these days, I recall Dornan and Downey, as well as the rancorous Clarence Thomas hearings in the Senate. It is a reminder that nothing has changed.
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