- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 28, 2006

Capitol Hill today is far different from what it was just as few years ago, and the Capitol dome sometimes seems the only thing that resembles the historic past.

Partisanship is the key word today. Gone are the elements of an effective democracy, such as compromise, diplomacy and all too often, high ethical standards. The negative drums beat louder as we approach the November elections.

Two dangers of the bloodletting we see in Congress today are that it discourages good candidates from seeking office, and, more basically, makes it almost impossible for Congress to act on major issues.

Extreme partisanship endangers the function of all three branches of federal government — the presidency, the Congress and even the courts. Confirmation is blocked regularly on federal judgeships and even the Supreme Court.

Tom Johnson, once a former White House Fellow and a major aide to President Lyndon Johnson, and former head of CNN television and the Los Angeles Times, spoke to the current White House Fellows last week and challenged them to “lead the way to a more rational and civil public discourse.”

Mr. Johnson described to the Fellows an incident in effective bipartisan tradeoffs involving President Johnson, House Speaker Jerry Ford and Senate leader Everett Dirksen and then asked the White House Fellows:

“An exercise in wheeler-dealing? Perhaps… but it might also be called an exercise in statecraft as it was practiced in one of the most productive legislative periods of the 20th century.

“Partisanship was important. But compromise was honored. And civility prevailed.

“Of those three, partisanship remains. Compromise is rare. And civility seems to have disappeared off the face of the political map.

“Can it be restored? It must be, if — and I firmly believe this — our system of government is to survive.”

Partisanship is essential to the two-party system, but not in the form practiced today. Extreme partisanship has led to the weakening of both political parties.

The best examples for bipartisanship have been provided by our nation’s past presidents.

When Lyndon Johnson left office, his final request to me and Tom Johnson was that his successor, Richard Nixon, keep former presidents informed on world affairs and ask them to offer advice. He had done that with Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Nixon followed the policy as have other presidents since that time.

The living past presidents also have been role models in joint projects including Hurricane Katrina.

Unfortunately, they act in a manner not followed by many of today’s politicians.

As 2006 election day approaches, Democratic leaders seem determined to build hatred toward the president of the United States, and the Republicans paint many of the Democrats as unpatriotic. Almost any policy proposed by the president is attacked by the Democrats.

One of the most treasured statements near the end of World War II was made by Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, who in January 1945, said: “Politics stops at the water’s edge.” His admonition was followed, and it certainly gave no comfort to the enemy. The extreme opposite of Vandenberg’s philosophy was led by Jane Fonda during the Vietnam War.

When President Harry Truman developed the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, he was supported by the Republican-dominated Herter Committee, which included a young congressman, Richard Nixon.

President Eisenhower found he could govern the nation more effectively by inviting to the White House Democratic leaders Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn. Over cocktails they regularly developed mutually advantageous policies. They listened to each other instead of shouting at each other.

History shows clearly that political civility works well for a democracy. Constant personal attack does not. Few, if any, would argue against debate as an essential function in the halls of Congress, but in the days past one could argue his case during the day and have dinner or a drink with an opponent at night. That was part of effective bipartisanship.

Personal civility does not mean one has to like all of his opponents. Eisenhower personally disliked John Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson, but he treated Stevenson civilly and worked to make the transition smooth between his administration and Kennedy’s.

Since the advent of political television, strong and usually misleading advertising has added to the anger associated with most campaigns. We now see it every day. Negative advertising frequently pays off, but it represents an evil that is the root of voter apathy.

The media also is to blame. All too often, the stories and headlines center on negative attacks on candidates with little to substantiate them. Newspaper and broadcast political coverage, too, has changed for the worse, and it results in lesser public interest.

Americans believe our system of government is the best the world has known. Our government thrives because of our respect for the rule of law that governs us. Our constitutional freedoms become endangered, however, when they lack public support.

It is time for the nation to return to the high road of diplomacy and compromise, it is time to seek positive leadership. Major problems such as Social Security are lost in a negative cloud of dust.

As we vote in November, bipartisanship should be demanded by Americans of both parties. We need to unite in demanding a change in attitude in Washington today.

Herbert G. Klein is a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, retired editor in chief of Copley Newspapers and former Nixon White House director of communications.


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