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Gwen’s Take: Politics as an extinct species

BY Gwen Ifill  April 25, 2014 at 3:27 PM EST
In 1996, Bob Dole solicits a vote with a giant flip cell phone, one of the devices that has since gone extinct. Photo by  J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1996, Bob Dole solicits a vote with a giant flip cell phone, one of the devices that has since gone extinct. Photo by J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images)

It is an entirely human condition to pine for the good old days, when candy cost a penny, hopscotch was the best way to spend recess and politicians actually talked to, not only at, one another.

But as the PBS NewsHour’s extinction series has reminded us this week, some things -– Canadian pennies, cursive writing -– seem to be on their way out.

So I turned my attention to politics. The Washington Post’s Dan Balz traveled to Kansas this week to watch 90-year-old Bob Dole take a victory lap around the state he represented for 36 years.

“I believe in a party of inclusion,” said Dole, who was his party’s national nominee twice -– once for vice president (’76) and once for president (’96). “You don’t say, ‘You’re not a good enough Republican, you’re too moderate.’ I thought I was a conservative, but we’ve got some in Congress now who are so far right they’re about to fall out of the Capitol.”

This kind of tart observation does not make Dole, whose most productive years were spent as Senate Majority Leader, extinct. But in the current political environment, it does make him sound a little crusty around the edges.

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Inclusion is kind of a bad word these days. Ask Jeb Bush. He’s thinking of running for president, but it appears he can only be taken seriously if, for instance, he plays down his devotion to the idea of comprehensive immigration reform.

He and I danced around the subject of his potential run for president during an appearance at North Carolina’s Guilford College last year. He, too, seemed to long for the days when middle ground was not something to be passed over on the way to the extreme.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us to say, we’re going to reward people that take a chance to compromise,” Bush told me then. “That it’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.”

Or it’s a recipe for extinction.

I long for a lot of lost things. I wish there were still corner stores that sold more than liquor and lottery tickets. I wish we valued face-to-face communication over texting, and that restaurant portions were reasonably sized.

I wish more people read hard copies of the newspaper and watched the evening news from start to finish. I wish the campaign finance check-off system worked.

And there a lot of things I don’t miss. I lived through dirndl skirts, disco and suitcase-sized cell phones. It is OK with me if they are extinct.

I don’t expect any of that to return. More often than not, we gain more than we lose when we embrace change.

But if we could venture out of our ideological corners more often, perhaps we could find room to get things done. Bob Dole, for one, has not given up. He’s decided to visit every one of Kansas’ 105 counties to thank the people who voted for him for all those years when Republicans and Democrats disagreed without staying disagreeable.

“I don’t know whether I’ll make it or not,” he said of his tour. “When you’re 90, you don’t order room service.”

That’s another thing I hope never gets extinct in Washington. Humor.