Gwen’s Take: Seeing Eye to Eye for a Change

Posted: Thu, 04/11/2013 - 5:11pm

Washington lives in its moments.

I got to sit in the White House East Room this week for the taping of an “In Performance at the White House” concert on Memphis Soul that will air on PBS next week. Justin Timberlake and Mavis Staples were there. I was in hog heaven.

Justin Timberlake was among the performers during a taping of "In Performance at the White House" airing next week on PBS. [Photo: PBS]

But something caught my eye as the president and first lady were making their way out of the room at the end of the evening.

The president veered to his left to single out a white-haired gentleman in the front row for a personal greeting. It was Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Chattanooga.

Ordinarily, this would not mean much. There were other Tennessee lawmakers there, too. But watching two men who typically agree on little exchange a firm handshake as the cameras rolled and the band played “Midnight Hour” reminded me of the value of even a moment’s face time.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) attended the performance at the White House and shook hands with President Obama afterwards. [File Photo: CNN]

This did not change the world. By the next day, after the president delivered his annual budget blueprint to Capitol Hill for ritual denunciation, Corker would be taking him to task for failing to do enough to cut spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

“The House, the Senate, and now the president have failed to produce budgets that responsibly address the number one driver of our country’s insolvency -- unsustainable spending on entitlement programs,” Corker said in a statement.

But in a world of high dudgeon and long-distance critique, these moments count, and this was a week full of them.

The next day, 12 other Republican senators, including Corker’s Tennessee seatmate Lamar Alexander, joined the President for a steak dinner in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House. The goal, once again, was face time.

“This is a good first step,” Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson, who organized the dinner, told FOX News afterward. “Maybe we can find some common ground. We’ve got big problems. We need big solutions.”

It’s easy to forget how much does and does not happen in Washington without a little old fashioned eye contact.

Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey announced a bipartisan bill to expand background checks on Wednesday. [Photo: CNN]

Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin III, for instance, have little in common on paper. But when it comes to breaking through logjams, Toomey, a conservative Republican, and Manchin, a conservative Democrat, are soulmates. That’s what happened when the two gun-owning senators hammered out middle ground that would allow a vote on a bill requiring background checks for gun buyers.

“I don’t consider criminal background checks to be gun control,” Toomey said. “I think it’s just common sense.”

And Manchin, according to the Washington Post, has taken to inviting colleagues out for a river ride on his boat, “The Black Tie.” “I’m doing everything I can to build relationships,” he told the Post. “[The] cheapest thing you can do is feed people.”

If the Toomey-Manchin compromise is to become law, many more discussions will be needed.

Still, even the background checks breakthrough may not have happened if lawmakers were not also forced to come face-to-face this week with victims of gun violence. Surviving relatives of those killed in the Newtown, Connecticut shootings descended on the Capitol as others read victims’ names in a vigil outside. Tears were shed.

It turns out it’s a lot easier to denounce people and policies when you don’t have to look them in the eye as you do it.

And that’s what President Obama seems to be counting on with his well-documented charm offensive. It’s what happens every time members of the Republican Party meet behind closed doors to harangue their leadership. It’s what happened this week in a park across the street from the White House when liberal Democrats staged a rally to complain about the president’s proposal to cut Medicare and Social Security. And it’s what happened when Senator Rand Paul, a conservative Republican from Kentucky, visited Howard University -- an historic and historically black college in Washington -- to appeal to skeptical students about the virtues of the GOP.

No one has to agree in the near term, or even ever, but it all seems healthy to me.

It can be so much easier to take pot shots when you are hiding behind a virtual hedge -- or behind podiums in the Rose Garden or on the Senate floor. So why not try actually talking for a change?