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For a Change, Something Nice to Say About the US Congress

10/31/2013 05:51 pm ET | Updated Dec 31, 2013

I have had the privilege of being in the Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol twice in the last two days -- for two very different events. Both served as reminders of the power and integrity of U.S. democracy at its best, and the role which its institutions have played, and continue to play, in the maintenance of our special relationship. On Tuesday, I attended the memorial service in honor of Tom Foley, ten-term Congressman from Washington state and Speaker of the House from 1989 to 1995.

In memory of Tom Foley, there were extraordinarily moving remarks from Speaker Boehner, several of his former Congressional colleagues, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. There was a wonderful speech from the 90-year-old former Republican Minority Leader Bob Michel, who received a standing ovation for the tribute he paid to his old sparring partner, and addresses from Presidents Clinton and Obama. Tom's widow, Heather Foley, noted that he was "a man of principle who believed there was honor in compromising."

Nancy Pelosi reminded the audience that she had attended a party at the British Embassy marking the award of an honorary knighthood to Tom Foley back in 1995 -- the day President Clinton had awarded a U.S. visa to Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams. Bill Clinton told the story, in his inimitable way, of how Tom Foley had supported the assault weapons ban in 1994 in the full knowledge that there would be electoral carnage in the mid-terms that year, because he believed it was the right thing to do. (Speaker Foley lost his seat by 4000 votes that November, precisely because he had chosen to take on the gun lobby.)

President Obama continued in a similar theme: Tom Foley had shown us that doing what was right was often hard, and came at a price. But that was what leadership was all about.

I knew Tom Foley well 20 years ago when he supported UK and Irish efforts to bring the troubles of Northern Ireland to an end. He was a man of integrity who showed as much respect and courtesy to those who opposed his views as to those who shared them, always putting the needs of his country and what he believed was right ahead of short-term expediency.

A day later, along with a number of visitors from the United Kingdom and members of the Churchill family, I attended another moving ceremony in Statuary Hall, this time to unveil a new bust of Winston Churchill by the sculptor Oscar Nemon. Speaker Boehner again presided, again supported by moving eulogies from Leader Pelosi, Majority Leader Reid, Minority Leader Senator McConnell, and -- this time -- Secretary of State, John Kerry. Nicholas Soames, Member of Parliament and Winston Churchill's grandson, replied on behalf of the family.

Speaker Boehner played a recording from Winston Churchill's historic address to the Joint Houses of Congress on 26 December 1941, as a reminder of Churchill's oratory and eloquence. He described him as "the best friend America ever had."

Senator McConnell reminded us of Churchill's last words to his Cabinet after being defeated in the General Election of 1955: "never be separated from the Americans." Senator Harry Reid said he had listened to -- and been inspired by -- all 125 hours of recorded Churchill speeches. Secretary Kerry, who had read biographies of Winston Churchill even as a teenager, noted that the United States Congress had conferred on Churchill the honor of being the first honorary U.S. citizen, concluding that "this bust reminds us of the bridges that must be built if we are to preserve our democracies."

It was an occasion that reminded us of the remarkable affection in which the Anglo-American Winston Churchill, perhaps Britain's greatest ever prime minister, is held in this country, and of the personal role he played in establishing the links between the United States and the United Kingdom which are now, invariably, and without qualification, described by political leaders as "special," or in the words of President Obama "essential and indispensable."

Both events recalled the importance of the legacy and the example of two great men who, in their different ways, continue to inspire their successors and epitomise leadership with integrity. The responses of politicians from both sides of the aisle also left me with the happy thought that whatever the evidence to the contrary may be, reports of the demise of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill may, after all, be a little exaggerated.

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