TOPICS > Politics

Historical Perspective on Bipartisanship

January 30, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, bipartisanship, how desirable is it? This month, the Republican-dominated 105th Congress was sworn in, and President Clinton was inaugurated for his second term. From both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue there were calls for more bipartisanship in government. President Clinton made this appeal last week in his inaugural address.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: (Jan. 20) The American people returned to office a president of one party and a Congress of another. Surely they did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore. (applause) No. They called on us instead to be repairers of the breach and to move on with America’s mission.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, four perspectives on whether partisanship can or should be reduced in Washington. We hear from NewsHour regulars presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss. They are joined tonight by two former legislators. Democrat David Pryor served three terms in the Senate before retiring in 1996. He’s now a Fulbright Fellow of Law and Public Affairs at the University of Arkansas. Republican Lynn Martin served five terms in the House. She also was secretary of labor in the Bush administration. She is now a corporate consultant and a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Thank you all for being with us. And starting with you, Madam Secretary, you’ve worked at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. How important is bipartisanship?

FORMER REP. LYNN MARTIN, (R) Illinois: Sometimes very important, sometimes not important at all. It’s obviously flavor of the month right now in Washington because it sounds so nice. The reality is common sense should drive much of what one does. We’ve seen some cabinet appointments that have gone through in a bipartisan way. That’s what it ought to be. But there should be differences between the parties. I think maybe what’s happened in Washington that is–aside from a heavy dose of hypocrisy on this bipartisanship question right now–is the differences people used to be able to disagree and then get together on other issues, maybe even have dinner or a drink together and be friends. That’s what seems to be missing. So I don’t think we should be searching for bipartisanship. I think we should be searching for the kind of thinking that reminds people what a joy public service can be, not how nasty it is.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sen. Pryor, what do you think about that? Do you think something’s changed and the call for bipartisanship is really kind of a mistake and looking for something else?

FORMER SEN. DAVID PRYOR, (D) Arkansas: (Fayetteville, Arkansas) Well, partisanship by itself, standing alone, is not all that evil nor sinful. I think they expect us to advance our party’s positions and our party’s goals and aspirations for the people and the constituencies that we represent. But where I might take a little bit of disagreement with my friend, Secretary Lynn Martin, is to say where she says common sense should drive our decisions, I think that common decency has an equal role to play. What we’ve seen really in about the last 50 years is where we used to see in the South most of the congressional seats occupied by Democrats; we now see for the first time in history that most of those seats are now occupied by Republicans.

We saw in the past some of those administration Democrats who ultimately side with and vote with the Republicans, and it would create a majority vote or at least enough votes to instigate a filibuster situation, as it might in the Senate. But now we’re seeing a true partisanship because we have seen a shifting of these particular seats. And they’re shifting into one party or another, thus creating this convergence, I guess, of what we call partisanship. But it’s the personal destruction of individuals that bothers me in our system that did not exist 50 years ago. It exists today, and it exists to an extent that I think endangers the system and certainly discourages those people that I’m with, the young people on the campus of the University of Arkansas, from entering this field of politics now, which has become the killing field.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris Kearns Goodwin, it didn’t exist 50 years ago? Let’s get a little historical perspective on bipartisanship.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, on the surface obviously bipartisanship is a good thing in a democracy in the sense that you need compromise in a democracy, and people have to go along with whatever it is you’re passing, a policy or legislation. In fact, Madison once said when he was asked what are the great principles of the Constitution, he said, there are three: compromise, compromise, compromise.

But on the other hand, it depends on if you can say that bipartisanship is the means to an end, the real judge is what are the ends, what are the goals that it’s reaching, and I can show you two different examples. I think right at the time of World War II and in the post war period, bipartisanship was a great thing, when it meant that Roosevelt brought in Simpson and Knox during World War II, when it meant that Truman and Eisenhower got Republicans behind them on the Marshall Plan, on point four, on fighting the Cold War, those goals were great, so on the other hand, bipartisanship was good. But then you look at the war in Vietnam, and something that Taft warned about with bipartisanship, he said, sometimes if you stop politics at the water’s edge, you don’t have debate, it’s a danger to the nation. There was too little debate on the war in Vietnam. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution went through too quickly. Indeed, had Lyndon Johnson had to bring his policy to Congress, had they fought with him, and they told him what would work and what wouldn’t work, his presidency might have been saved, and the country might have been a wholly different thing. So you judge the ends, rather than the means, although compromise is a good thing most of the time.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael, do you agree, you judge the ends, not the means? Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Yes. I think Doris is absolutely right. And, you know, if you look at sort of the great things that our system has achieved, another example would be civil rights legislation early in the New Deal and even the build up toward World War II, just as a few examples in this century, they came as the culmination of great debates between the president and congress, between the two parties. They were done in most cases with some civility which we like to see, but the system works best if you have differences that exist among the American people represented in the structure of this process. Our founders wanted there to be conflict. The problem with the talk about bipartisanship nowadays I think is that it’s like motherhood, something that no one is going to be against, when, in fact, if you look at this century, you’ve seen calls for bipartisanship generally when presidents lose congress. Wilson did on some issues in 1919; Herbert Hoover in 1931. The clip that we saw of Bill Clinton at the beginning of this segment was almost exactly the same words that George Bush used, Lynn Martin’s old boss, in 1989 in his inaugural. He said the American people didn’t send us here to bicker. I think that if George Bush had come in with a big Republican Congress, he wouldn’t have said that. He would have said, I’m now going to really enter mortal combat with the Democrats, because he would have had that kind of power.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Madam Secretary, is something else also going on? Is it a way when you’re asking people to put up with say a lowering of their benefits, of their entitlements? Is it a way to avoid responsibility for it?

LYNN MARTIN: Oh, sure. I mean, probably if we wanted to talk about getting things back, we should cut the number of staffs and probably have a law that said no more commissions, you know; get there and actually vote on something that’s hard. But it might mean loss of jobs for people who truly think they’re doing something right. You know, I don’t know why we’re surprised that members of congress generally want to keep a job, or a member of the senate. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think we’re forgetting something else that’s very different today, and that’s it suddenly every member of congress and president and the president’s staff, as difficult is this to believe, all became dear and nice, we’d still be watching screaming matches on television; we’d still be reading in the newspapers awful, dreadful things. So it isn’t any more just about members of congress; it’s not the reality; it’s the perception on how the American people–the difference today, though, is the American people are turning them off–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Are you saying that–

LYNN MARTIN: –when they think they’re being petty.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Just so I’m clear, are you saying that even if a majority of congress is working in a bipartisan way, we would only see the screaming matches?

LYNN MARTIN: Absolutely.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is that what you’re saying?

LYNN MARTIN: We’d not only see the screaming matches among the press and among the consultants because that’s now who’s giving to most Americans what they hear about government. We’re not hearing from office holders the way we used to. We’re hearing through the filter of consultants and columnists.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, you and Sen. Pryor seem to be saying something similar. You were making a distinction, weren’t you, Sen. Pryor, between bipartisanship and being very partisan but being civil, is that the distinction you were making too?

DAVID PRYOR: I think that it is the civility that worries me so much more than the rising statistics of partisanship votes in the past twenty or thirty years in the House and Senate. It’s the lack of civility or the growing incivility, I think. They’re still–most of the congress are very civilized people, and they want to conduct their businesses in a civilized way. But 30 years ago we would never think of going into a state and campaigning against one of our colleagues, for example, who’s our seat mate maybe at the lunch counter or down in the senate dining room. We would never think about going out and raising money against one of our colleagues, or, if we did, we would certainly call ’em on the phone and say, hey, Jack, I’m coming to your state this weekend; I’m not going to say anything rough about you; I know you will know that I’m your friend. We just don’t seem to have that same thing.

I think that some of the panelists will remember when I believe it was Congressman Sidney Yates, Democrat in Illinois, could not get Jack Kennedy, President John Kennedy, to come to the state and campaign for him. And Congressman Yates got very infuriated against–about this in-appearance or non-appearance of President Kennedy. President Kennedy liked the individual that Sidney Yates was running against, and I think he was in a senate campaign at that time, and he did not go into the state to challenge him. That sort of camaraderie that used to sort of hold the House and Senate together is something that I fear is waning and somehow or another we need to restructure that if we can.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes, Doris. What do you think about that? Has it definitely changed?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I really think so. I think there was an institutional patriotism when you belonged to the House and the Senate. It was the culmination of your life to be in that job. You spent time in Washington. You didn’t run around quite as much in your district because the transportation wasn’t as great. So there were friendships that formed, and it was that friendship that, for example, Lyndon Johnson was able to deal with when he needed bipartisan support to get the filibuster ended on civil rights. He could go to Dirksen. He had spent hours with him sitting at night, drinking, swapping stories. He got Hubert Humphrey to go up to the Hill and say, I’ve courted Dirksen more assiduously than I courted my wife, Muriel. And he made Dirksen feel if you go with me on civil rights and break this southern filibuster, you will be writing a chapter in the history of the Senate, and you will be proud. I’m not sure that that same sense of belonging to an institution in a time of weakened parties, a time of so much money, putting each person on an individual platform, and a time of less patriotism really to the congress exists, is much possible today.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael, we’re hearing a lot of positive things about bipartisanship. What are the dangers? What about voters who have very definite views, if their views aren’t represented by somebody? Is there a danger that they will go off and–

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The danger is they check out of the system. We know that people vote when they feel that casting a vote for one party or another, one candidate or another, is going to be a real change in policy. If you have both parties with somewhat muddy views that don’t seem very different, turn out goes down and also the conflict in our society is not embodied in the political system. One other point, and that is that I think in the 1990’s, much less than for instance the 1960’s that Doris mentioned, members of congress, others in political office, are a lot less willing to lose at times for political principle. You look, for instance, at some of the conservative Republicans in the 1960’s. They were against the Great Society; they were against big government; and they basically said this is a period in which our ideas are not in vogue, but we’re not going to try to fuzz up what we’re saying in order to be momentarily popular; we’re going to stick to these views and wait till our time comes again and in the meantime critique what the dominant group is doing. And I think that was something that was very useful for the country. I think we’re not served in this period by having two parties and two sets of leaders who are pretending that they believe the same things.

LYNN MARTIN: Before we get mired in this nostalgia for the past, I mean, I thought it was nice too but not quite as nice as everyone remembers.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It’s an occupational hazard of historians.

LYNN MARTIN: I guess that’s right. That’s true. But in this case, since, you know, most history isn’t that close, these were–these were clubs. It’s easy to talk, for instance, about, and there were some wonderful southern senators, but I wonder if I were an African-American from Mississippi if I’d think it was quite as charming as we now remember some of these things. I wonder now that we do have more representatives across the incredible changing parts of America. So I think we have to be very careful of terms. Of course one ought to be civil, and that’s part of it. But, you know, a country that goes and sees Beavis and Butthead, why does it surprise us that, boy, some of our politicians aren’t civil, so they are reflecting society, and maybe we should all take a look at it. But the reality is here when you’re fighting for a great thing, if you believe in it, you shouldn’t be talking about bipartisanship. You should be talking about what you think best for the country and risk losing if that’s what has to be done.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you all very much. That’s all the time we have.