Ciao to Convention

I can’t hear mention of the good old days without grimacing. Golden days for some folks were hell for others. At the same time, some good-old-days conventions and assumptions come in handy. The unspoken agreement, say, to prevent blacks from moving into white neighborhoods, is/was crappy. The old boy system that has women earning 78% of what men make is intolerable (AAUW statistic). But what I think we’re seeing in 2015 America is the disappearance of useful conventions.

It’s hard to imagine people “somewhere ages and ages hence” telling their grandchildren about these days “with a sigh.” Maybe Americans are as happy as ever in their homes and relationships, but societal life is often a vexing pain in the ass. Why? Our conventions—shared beliefs about how the world works and how people ought to behave—are being put out to pasture one by one.

Schmoes like me watch the news and say, “Hey wait, I thought we had a deal!” Our pacts sometimes find words: “Don’t hit below the belt.” “Don’t stab a man in the back.” “Don’t run up the score.” LeBron James shouldn’t (and wouldn’t, of course) cream a teenager in one-on-one. That’s not how we operate. Have some class. We’re all in this together. Show a little mercy. Give the kid a break.

Sadly, such deals are collapsing, especially in politics. Each time a convention is smacked on the rump and told to start grazing, folks with manners and a sense of fair play slap their foreheads. When forty-six Senate Republicans signed Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) open letter to Iran about Obama’s nuclear talks, another Clydesdale clopped off with head hung low: “We Americans are all on one team, and in some matters we don’t undermine the Commander-in-chief.” Conservative columnist Michael Gerson puts a fine point on it: “Congress simply has no business conducting foreign policy with a foreign government, especially an adversarial one.”

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The United States Capitol: a setting that should inspire honor, or at least passable manners. (Credit: Wikipedia)

It’s no big deal that one greenhorn senator penned a letter meant to interfere with delicate negotiations. The problem is, forty-six of Cotton’s colleagues signed the letter and are now taking turns tussling his hair, if indeed they can reach that high. In other words, about half of the United States Senate thinks it’s not only okay, but laudatory, to reject a long-standing assumption about constructive and honorable political behavior.

The Republican objection, summarized by Rand Paul (R-KY), is that President Obama is undertaking negotiations with Iran without congressional participation. Well now gosh, I wonder why the President would do such a thing—which leads me to another convention standing out in a rainy field: bipartisan cooperation.

When former Tennessee Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) died in June of 2014, both Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Harry Reid (D-NV) practically wet themselves on the Senate floor paying tribute to the “Great Conciliator.” Current Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), also praised Baker: “His service was marked by a courtly, civil, and respectful style that won him friends and admirers on both sides of the aisle. His example — his ability to fight for principle, and disagree without being disagreeable — will continue to inspire us as we honor his life and memory.”

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The Great Conciliator in 1984 (Credit: Wikipedia)

Yeah, right. This from the Speaker who took the uncivil, disrespectful liberty of inviting a foreign head of state to address a joint session of Congress behind the President’s back. Has this ever happened before? No. And so, ciao to another understanding among the branches of government. Add to this Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eagerness to accept such a shabby invitation, and convention takes another blow: of course Bibi knew that his speech would break with tradition. He just didn’t care. Let’s face it: all that Howard Baker stood for is now scorn fodder. Imagine the “Great Conciliator” and young Turk Tom Cotton brokering a deal in a present day cloakroom. The beloved Tennessean would be scorched earth.

Not because Baker would be outmatched, but because the rules he played by no longer apply. In a Washington Post essayThomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein blame Republicans: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Let’s pause for a little contrast. Consider the words about compromise from Senator John McCain (R-AZ): “The way you have bipartisan negotiations, you sit down across the table, as we did with Ted Kennedy, as I’ve done with many other members, and you say, ‘OK, here’s what I want, here’s what you want. We’ll adhere to your principles, but we’ll make concessions.'” Now let’s hear from John Boehner as he summarizes his goals for leading the House of Representatives (it refers to Obama’s agenda for a second term): “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.”

For Boehner, “everything we can do” includes holding multiple votes on the Affordable Care Act, a recent one merely for the benefit of freshman Republicans who haven’t had the chance to record their ire at Obamacare. How many is multiple? TheAtlantic.com reports fifty-six. My head spins at the wasteful stupidity. According to MiamiCBSLocal.comthe estimated cost to taxpayers for each of these votes is $1.45 million.

I wish to God I could track down which politician said something like, “When I lost a vote, I walked across the aisle, shook hands, and said, ‘I hope I can count of your vote on the next bill.'” Was it Howard Baker? Bob Dole? Richard Lugar? (I really looked hard. If you know, please pull me aside!)

Oh for the days of debating, voting, and moving on. But this is yet another demoralized horse. “Go munch bramble, you mangy thing!” Votes, it seems, are meaningless anymore. Which returns me to a question I asked earlier: “Why would the President undertake nuclear negotiations with Iran without congressional participation?” Why bother? Colleagues who would spend $81.2 million on symbolic votes and have repeatedly made their subversive intentions clear aren’t looking to provide input. Their goal is to impede and frustrate. The evidence of this is indisputable. By any measure of productivity, argues Chris Cillizza, the 113th Congress is the worst in history.

This is what happens when a democracy is deprived of its long-standing working agreements. It’s also what happens when, as Mann and Ornstein suggest, facts and scientific evidence don’t matter. Example: according to Climate.NASA.gov, “Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.” I would call this a consensus, but not Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who said in 2012, “Just so you’ll know, global warming is a total fraud and it’s being designed because what you’ve got is you’ve got liberals who get elected at the local level want state government to do the work and let them make the decisions. Then, at the state level, they want the federal government to do it. And at the federal government, they want to create global government to control all of our lives.”

Believe it or not, my intention here isn’t to take Cotton, Boehner, et. al. to the woodshed, but to make observations that help keep me sane. Taking in the world, politics in particular, sometimes steals my peace, so I lay out my case as a way of regaining equilibrium. For the record, I’m a Democrat, but plan to forgo participation in future primaries by becoming an Independent. Why? Republicans are responsible for most of the demise of conventions, but I don’t despair about the possibility of them taking over America because, as I often say, “They eat their own young.” By disposition, theirs is a house divided. On the other hand, Democrats violate shared understandings when it suits them; they just don’t do it as often and with such glee as Republicans. When a politician of one party is indignant over the effrontery of a colleague from the other party, prepare to hear some hypocritical bull crap. They take turns being aghast. Awww, shaddup!

Which is probably what I should do. To the litany of conventional behaviors sent to the glue factory I’ll add two quick others from outside the beltway. Consider these me waving so long on a lighter note.

  • My son Micah watches Mixed Martial Arts matches, where the “don’t hit a man when he’s down” deal is off. When somebody gets knocked out, the victor keeps hammering the guy’s unconscious head until the referee steps in. I’m not a fan.
  • I’m all for earthy, sophomoric humor, but wasn’t sure what to do with a bumper sticker I saw yesterday. Irreverent, yes, but it seems like a minor violation of bumper sticker etiquette.
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Congratulations?

The next time I see a convention trotting into the sunset–an overshare or a politician being ill-mannered–I’ll say, “Nope, you’re not stealing my peace. Not today!”

 

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An Apology to President George W. Bush

Dear President Bush:

I write to apologize. Your presidency was an awfully long eight years for me, but I read a newspaper column today that made me stop, think, and admit something to myself: From 2001 to 2009, I seldom looked at you with compassionate eyes. Instead, I allowed myself to sink into the mud of political frustration and rancor that has only gotten worse since you left office.

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“A second plane has hit the second tower. America is under attack.” Still, you read The Pet Goat to the children so they wouldn’t be alarmed. Thank you. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The column that prompts my letter is by Cokie and Steve Roberts, “What Clinton, Bush can teach us about leadership.” You and President Clinton, the Roberts report, are starting the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program, and “part of [your] mission is to demonstrate that Washington does not have to be a cesspool of toxic partisanship.” I get the impression that you and President Clinton are comparing the political climate of your presidencies with that of President Obama and trying to push us out of the muddy cesspool that is only getting more toxic. And, the Roberts note, the libraries of Lyndon Johnson and your father are joining with you in this effort.

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What would our country look like if your faces in this photograph reflected Washington’s modus operandi: good spirits and mutual kind regard and respect? Please help us to get there. (Credit: Wikipedia)

A photograph from the program’s launch shows you and President Clinton sharing a hearty laugh. More from the column: “By [Bush’s and Clinton’s] presence and performance, they embodied a key dimension of effective leadership. They showed that political rivals do not have to be personal enemies. In fact, they can actually like each other, trust each other, cooperate with each other. And they can do so while disagreeing on basic issues.” Oh, my Lord, may it be so. Please know that I’m sending prayers and every good wish your way for success.

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You look like a man giving a genuine hug–to hurricane victims in Biloxi on September 2, 2005. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I’m pretty sure this spirit of collegiality and cooperation was alive and well in you during your presidency, and occasionally it would occur to me that your job was daunting, your challenges staggering. The trouble is, that sympathetic sentiment never made the southward journey from my head to my heart. Of course, now I watch the guy I voted for trying to get anything at all done, and sadness rests in my chest. I get it. For some time now, governing has been exceedingly difficult and often impossible. We’re stuck in mud. So I feel sad for you retroactively. Forgive me for being late.

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Lots of us didn’t care much for what we considered too much grin and swagger. I’ll speak only for myself: I was being petty. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I should mention that during your years in office my next-door-neighbor and I agreed you would be a great guy to have a beer with. It’s strange, even with my passionate opinions about all that occurred on your watch, I would rather talk to you about incidentals. For example, your gaffs are legendary. My favorite is from 2002: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee that says, fool me once, shame on shame on you. Fool me you can’t get fooled again.” As I read this, I laugh, but honestly, there’s no edge to it. My old frustration has softened. George W. Bush was President, but he was also a guy with a microphone in his face for hours each day. So I probably should cut him a break.

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Express yourself, Mr. President. Why not? (Credit: LyleLanley99 on reddit.com)

I also recently saw one of your paintings, the one with your feet—those are your feet, correct?—sticking out of bathwater. Again, I’m laughing, but if you were here with me this morning, you would understand at once that it comes from a loving place. You’re a fellow human being, and when you were in the Oval Office, I routinely forgot that.

The Roberts mentioned something about you in their report that I wish I had known years ago. “And during Bush’s tenure, Clinton revealed, the president would call his predecessor on a regular basis and ask for his advice.” I can see now your humanity more clearly. A man who would paint his feet in the bathtub would have no qualms about calling the guy who worked the previous shift for help.

So, Mr. President, please accept my apology. It’s not fair to bemoan the intolerance and anger in Washington when I’m a willing participant. This letter may never reach you. If by chance it does, receive my good wishes for your Presidential Leadership Scholars Program and my thanks for what I now believe to be your sincere efforts to do what you thought best for our country.

Peace and blessings,

John Coleman