In what is almost certainly not news to anyone, more American voters than ever — 63 percent of them — now tell the Washington Post-ABCNews poll that rather than “vote to re-elect (their) representative in Congress” in the 2012 election, they instead “are inclined to look around for someone else to vote for.”
Sadly, this Congress does seem to have cornered the world’s known reserves of bile. Consider the recent “debate” between two South Florida House members, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz — who doubles as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee — and freshman Republican and Tea Party favorite Rep. Allen West.
In a statement on the House floor — when West was not present — Wasserman Schultz characterized West’s support of the Republican plan to cut federal funding for Medicare “unbelievable,” when he “represents thousands of Medicare beneficiaries, as do I.”
Rejecting any advice to turn the other cheek, West, by email and in statements, called Wasserman Schultz “vile, unprofessional, despicable” and “characterless.” For the defense, Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., compared West to Terry Jones, “the pastor in Florida who burned the Koran” to provoke “a media frenzy.” Regardless of where you might stand, you’ll agree that the preceding is not to be confused with the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Washington, believe me, has not always been this poisonous. There was a time, not that long ago, when fierce political opponents could still be personal friends.
In 1986, House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, D-Mass., had announced he would retire from Congress. Friends and supporters planned a testimonial dinner to honor the nation’s longest-serving speaker and to raise money for his beloved alma mater, Boston College.
But there was a big problem. The leading Democratic money men in Washington disparaged the idea of a big dinner: Everybody liked Tip, but he was on the way out of office and unable to deliver on any future favors.
The two women organizing the dinner understood that to overcome such attitudes, they needed a Big Name to chair the dinner. The call was made to former President Gerald Ford, who had been House Republican leader when O’Neill had been House Democratic leader and, more important, was a close personal friend.
Ford did not hesitate. Of course he would be happy to chair the event, and, yes, he would be there. His personal check was in the mail. With Ford on board, the next call was to Mike Deaver in President Ronald Reagan’s White House. Yes, the Republican president would attend the dinner honoring his political nemesis, the Democratic speaker.
It was one of Washington’s grandest evenings. A paid crowd of 2,200 (at $1,000 a ticket) filled the Washington Hilton ballroom to hear Reagan observe: “To be honest, I’ve always known Tip was behind me — even if it was only at the State of the Union address. As I made each proposal, I could hear Tip whispering to (Vice President) George Bush: ‘Forget it. No way. Fat chance.’” He continued, “Mr. Speaker, I am grateful you have permitted me in the past, and I hope in the future, the singular honor of calling you my friend.”
But the man who made the memorable evening — and $2 million to Boston College — at all possible was Ford, who stepped up and who had so much personally in common with O’Neill. Both men were total strangers to self-importance. Neither man had even a trace of hate in him. They wasted no time at all worrying about what the media were saying about them.
President Ford and Speaker O’Neill, great political adversaries and great personal friends in a Washington, D.C., I really miss.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.