By Ken Feltman
A jackass can kick a barn down but it can’t build anything.
Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas)
Late Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen (R-Ill.) once remarked that “the real citadel of strength of any community is in the hearts and minds and desires of those who dwell there.” Dirksen spoke of the United States Congress as a “community.” What would he think of that community today?
Of course, Dirksen served in very different times. He was in the House from 1933 to 1949 and the Senate from 1951 till his death in 1969, becoming minority leader in 1959. He once remarked that he served with two Texans who were both experts at using the levers of government to advance their causes, but in very different ways.
He served in the House with legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.). Rayburn encouraged bipartisan discussions with late afternoon “bourbon and branch water” gatherings in his office. Congressmen of both parties put aside their differences and discussed whatever they wanted, including what they had in common. An Illinois congressman told of having a furious argument with Rayburn on the House floor. Later the same afternoon, he joined the gathering in Rayburn’s office and the earlier bitterness vanished. He and Rayburn reached agreement on a bill of mutual interest to Texas and Illinois.
In the Senate, Dirksen worked with Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (D-Tex.) and they formed a close friendship. They respected each other and shared a low opinion of the work habits of a dashing young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. After the tragedy in Dallas, Dirksen and LBJ began working together again and in 1964, Dirksen looked past divisive obstinacy on both side of the aisle as he and the new president worked together to provide Republican votes in the Senate to pass the Civil Rights Act. Most Southern Democrats would not – perhaps could not – support that bill. Later, asked how he and LBJ secured the last few votes, Dirksen never mentioned LBJ’s iron will. Instead, he pointed out that “we knew we couldn’t get it done state-by-state, city-by-city. It was the right thing to do and long overdue.”
In effective legislative bodies, the center aisle dividing the parties is a busy thoroughfare, with people crisscrossing as they seek common ground and find mutual interests. Somewhere, somehow, the center-aisle thoroughfare has become blocked by one-way signs. A recent Pew Research Center study examined the partisan gap earlier this year (18 percentage points) and compared it to earlier gaps (10 points in 1987). Pew’s Scott Keeter, director of survey research, discussed the findings in detail this week with Reflections, a publication of Yale Divinity School.
Who will be surprised that Keeter was asked about cable television? “The polarized talk on cable – Fox News, MSNBC and others – is reaching a very small public,” Keeter pointed out. “Americans tell us that they don’t want polarization to get in the way of possible solutions. The problem is politicians have trouble hearing that if they listen only to the most ideological voices in their party.”
The good news is that while Keeter sees the political gap rising, he finds Americans much more in agreement on other values. For example, the gaps concerning gender, race, ethnicity, religion and class are no wider than they have ever been. What is it about politics that makes the gap so much wider? Perhaps the problem is not with the public or the media. Perhaps the problem is with the politicians.
We may never have another politician with the “persuasive powers” of LBJ. But where is that bourbon and branch water?
(A version of this article was published in the Falls Church (Va.) News-Press and a similar article was published in Politico.com.)