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Michael Smerconish Headshot

How to Get Civility in Washington Back on Track

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Bob Schieffer delivered a commentary on Face the Nation last Sunday that made me think of Joe Biden and Arlen Specter. Yesterday, I got the opportunity to tell the vice president why he had come to mind.

"Not long ago," Schieffer said, "a staffer for a congressional leader actually asked if we could provide a private waiting room for his boss who was appearing on Face the Nation because the boss didn't want to share a waiting room with someone from the other party."

Sounds like the Washington equivalent of Van Halen demanding the removal of the brown M&Ms. So ridiculous. And yet, so typical of the times.

When I related that to Biden, he knew exactly which track I was headed down. "Arlen is one of my closest friends in the Senate. For 30 years we rode the train. I used to ride it every single day, as you know, and he'd come home every weekend and sometimes more than that. We'd sit with each other on the way up and the way back," the vice president told me in an interview.

Neither required a separate compartment. To the contrary, from the rides emerged a close bond, despite their caucusing with opposite parties. "He's one of my closest friends. When he was sick, he'd call me from his doctor's office at Penn. When I was being attacked back in the 80s, he stood there with me," he said.

"This guy is a guy with more steel in his backbone than most people have in their whole body. I just find him a remarkable guy."

Such close friendships among members of opposite parties are missing today. Our elected officials are constantly in campaign mode, and as a result they spend an inordinate amount of time demonizing -- or plotting to demonize -- their political opponents. They go to Washington to vote, then head right back to their district to raise more money for the next fight.

So scant is the time spent in Washington that leaders have stooped to manipulating the schedule in order to get members back to town.

Last September, I traveled to Washington on a Monday night for a reception in honor of Jose Melendez-Perez, the heroic immigration inspector who turned away the intended twentieth hijacker five weeks before 9/11. The event was hosted by Congressmen Bob Brady and the late John Murtha, both Democrats from Pennsylvania.

At one point, Congressman Brady invited me and my 14-year-old son, who made the trip with me, to head to the Capitol building with him. Scheduled that night were three humdrum measures -- the sort of congratulatory proclamations that pass without a single vote of opposition. Brady allowed my son to physically cast his votes for him. The congressman said those Monday votes are scheduled as a way of forcing members to return to Washington in time for the start of Tuesday's session.

The point is that elected officials spend only as much time together as is absolutely necessary. And they only see each other in a single context: the ugly political and ideological clashes that end up dominating the daily talk radio shows and nightly cable television programs. Gone is the collegiality evident when guys like Biden and Specter arrived in Washington three decades ago. Maybe that is also a function of the ideologues now controlling the town.

In his memoir, Passion for Truth, Specter relates how upon arrival in Washington in 1981, he was one of many moderates within the GOP, including Bill Cohen of Maine, John Chafee of Rhode Island, Jack Danforth of Missouri, Charles Percy of Illinois, Charles Mathias of Maryland and John Heinz of Pennsylvania.

When I shared that list with Biden, he recalled many fondly, singling out Senators Percy and Cohen as "good friends." In February, he delivered the eulogy at the funeral service of Senator Mathias at the request of Mathias' family. "These guys were guys who put the national interest before their party. They put the national interest before their immediate interest. It's more a character trait than a political trait. And Arlen shares it with all of those guys," he told me.

Whatever the level of vitriol today, I wonder if it's really more than could be ironed out over a couple beers in the beverage car.

The point is to force members of Congress to see their peers on both sides of the aisle as more than political animals. Because it'll be harder to smear a colleague you know apart from the pressurized fishbowl that is Washington.

The Vice President agreed. In the past, he and his moderate colleagues "hung out together," he told me. "We went to dinner together. I was invited to their homes when I was a young bachelor after losing my wife for those five years. These are people who reached out to my children."

The result? Apolitical collegiality. The kind that inspired Utah conservative Orrin Hatch to write a song in tribute to his longtime friend Ted Kennedy.

On trains running the I-95 corridor, the vice president formed a similar bond with Pennsylvania's longest serving United States Senator. That was long before the latter defected to the Democratic Party. There's no reason why their younger colleagues couldn't do the same.