Toxic in nation's capitol

The Friday following Thanksgiving — a slow news day, no deadlines looming; my wife out of town and the kids and the grands all occupied with whatever. So, with some time on my hands, I thought to begin the Christmas season with a long overdue call to an old friend in the nation’s capitol.

An Arkansas native, he has lived and worked in Washington for 60 years, first for a legendary lawmaker, then for the Senate, then did a bit of lobbying before concentrating on his golf game. He’s now in his early 80s but vital, vigorous and in good health, still possessed of one of the shrewdest political minds I’ve encountered, and I suspect he’s almost as well-connected today as in his time on the Hill. He’s been generous with his insights, and has steered me away from more than one wrong assessment. He loves his country deeply and always has been the optimist, even in the face of electoral or policy disappointments — there would be another day, another opportunity. Our institutions were strong even if the men and women who staffed them were at times weak-willed or ill-informed, misguided. However fitfully, the United States would move ahead, we would prevail. The naysayers were wrong, always.

Imagine my dismay at finding him fairly dejected.

“I’ve never seen it like this,” he said, assaying the Congressional dross. “Never.”

His legislative career, which by and large spanned the second half of the previous century, was a time of something called bipartisanship. Representatives and senators disagreed, sometimes powerfully, and sometimes within their own caucuses — the civil rights debates of the 1960s, notably, when northern and southern Democrats were at odds — yet comity between the factions, between the parties, between members, was restored at day’s end. (A cold beer or a bourbon-and-branch in the back room can reconcile competing egos, conflicting agendas, disparate ideologies). The two parties staked out their positions on the significant issues of the day and went back and forth for weeks, often months. Then a conference committee would huddle and bring to the floor a deal everyone could live with — a compromise.

My friend’s beginning in Washington was in 1954, just as Joseph McCarthy’s reign of terror was ending, in fact not long before the Wisconsinite’s fellow senators censured him. McCarthy had created bipartisan fear, but his smears eventually brought him bipartisan punishment. He only thought McCarthy’s rampage was the worst of it, my friend continued. But none of our national travails in the years that followed — not the Kennedy assassination, the agony of Vietnam, Watergate, not even the Clinton impeachment nor the shock of 9/11 and the wars that continue — none of it, he sighed, produced the bitter partisan paralysis of Washington today.

The bile, the profound distrust, even hatred, of the incumbent president “hangs in the air, you can smell it,” he told me. “You need to come up here for three or four days to really appreciate how bad it is. Just walk through the Capitol, the (House and Senate) office buildings.

“You can smell it,” he said again. “A lot of it is racism, and I don’t care who says it isn’t.”

We talked a little of how things had changed in Congress over the years: computer-drawn House districts (I call them genetically-engineered) designed to guarantee one or the other party’s dominance but which encourage members to ignore their respective “leaders”; unlimited taxpayer-funded travel to and from home states, which discourages personal relationships, and thus trust, among delegates; the rise of “independent” advocacy groups and political action committees and the oceans of money in which they drown campaigns. The result was hardly surprising.

December was a day or so away, both House and Senate planned only a handful of meetings before the Christmas break and the end of the session, and look what was held hostage: immigration reform and the farm bill, both of particular concern in Arkansas; and the Iran initiative, an effort to defuse Tehran’s nuclear weapons before the fuse was created, a low- or no-risk opportunity for the U.S., was being savaged by hawks of both parties. And, of course, health care — the administration’s own bumbles in the Obamacare rollout giving fresh ammunition to opponents with no alternative and who seemed content to allow health care expenditures to drain the economy, and who were willing to play Russian roulette — “boneheads” — with the budget and the debt ceiling to derail any attempt at serious reform.

“I wish I had an answer,” my friend told me, “but I don’t. If I did I’d tell you, but I don’t.”

We wished one another a Merry Christmas.

Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.