I wrote this piece last week upon hearing of the passing of former Senator Howard Baker and have refined it several times in order to make sure I pay appropriate homage to the man and the institution he so ably served. He played a pivotal role in the wake of dual crises: one that tore this country literally in half (the Vietnam War); and a second that forced us to question the strength and validity of our constitutional framework (the Watergate break-in and President Nixon's complicity in it).
I am not normally in the business of either praising or even countenancing positive contributions of adversaries, i.e. the Republican Party, but as that entity strays further and further from relevance to the functioning of our representative democracy I feel it is important to concede that there once was a time when our system functioned in a way that improved the lives of its citizens.
Like it or not it is important to face the fact that until changes that are realistically not in play currently change our two-party system we are stuck with what we have got, and it is crucial that we figure out a way to forge changes that move us towards a more egalitarian and tolerant society. At this juncture that is not happening and therefore I believe we need to dig deeply into the root causes of why and examine what has changed.
Thus we find ourselves returning to the not so distant past, Eisenhower in the '50s, JFK, RFK, and MLK in the '60s, and Congressional rescue from a near constitutional crisis and a crisis of confidence in our government that took place in the '70s. It is this last time frame that will be the focus of this piece today. Hopefully a quick look back can shed light on a way to resuscitate a system precariously perched on a ledge staring into the deep abyss of futility and dysfunction.
The year 1973 brought this country perilously close to a constitutional crisis, and had it not been for the incredible spectacle of the U.S. Senate Watergate Committee's hearings and the clinic in civility, comity, and bipartisan dedication to the Constitution that was on display daily for all the American people to see there can be little doubt that our Nation would have been worse off.
At the center of the Watergate hearings were two Southern Senators, Democratic Senator Sam Ervin from North Carolina who chaired the Committee, and Republican Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, the ranking member. At the time I was recuperating from a life-threatening injury which required me to convalesce in the comfort of my parent's house in Pennsylvania. I was 19-years-old, a college sophomore with little idea of what I wanted to do in life and had basically gone to college to avoid the draft. Not only did the hearings fill my day but they inspired me to dream big and choose a course of action.
As I sat mesmerized by the drama that unfolded with each passing day I came to the realization that public service and government was an arena where I could fulfill my idealistic dreams for making the world a better place for others. This pivotal development would lead me to a nearly four decade career in public service that would have me working for two Presidential administrations (Carter and Clinton), the U.S. Senate Budget Committee, and stints for two prominent Governors (Rendell from Pennsylvania and Brown from California) and eventually lead me to write a book about the dysfunctional state of affairs which currently grips our system.
In that book, The Evolution of a Revolution, I identify the need to return to the notion that government can work in order to dig ourselves out of the ditch we are in, an idea which is in direct contravention to the cynical notion that government is the problem and not the solution which is flaunted by the Tea Party and its proxy the current Republican Party.
As fate would have it I met Senator Ervin several years later and he signed my Constitutional Law textbook as "an old country lawyer" and in 1981 I would end up working for Tennessee Senator Jim Sasser, junior Senator to Howard Baker before he left to become Chief of Staff to President Reagan in 1987.
There was a time when these men were giants and represented the very best ideals that are the foundation of this representative democracy. The most conspicuous principle that undergirds our government is the necessity to compromise, to reach agreement on important issues that face the nation and its people. As a young man dedicated to the notion of public service I had the good fortune and honor of watching our system work, not perfectly, but effectively. It is hard to imagine that happening in the toxic political environment that has captured our society today and the longer we drift into willful neglect of important issues like climate change or income inequality the more severe the consequences will be for those that follow.
Howard Baker was not averse to partisan politics, it would be naïve to suggest otherwise, but in the formative years that I spent in Washington, DC and the halls of Congress it was accepted that compromise and civility would ultimately triumph and keep the engine of progress moving forward. Today that is not the case and we all will suffer the perils of inaction. This is not a romantic dalliance with memory lane, it is in reality a fact and as John Adams was fond of saying "facts are stubborn things".
I am not suggesting we return to a point in time, but rather that we return to an understanding of the fundamental precepts of our democratic government. Our elected leaders could learn a great deal from the lessons of the Watergate hearings, merely watching them might give them a deep appreciation for how the system is supposed to work and hopefully disabuse them of the inane proposition that obstruction is not just a tactic but a stated goal.
So as we mourn the passing of Howard Baker let us reflect upon the lessons that he valiantly if unconsciously was imparting to us over forty years ago: namely, to rise above pettiness and work to reach compromise on issues big and small. He played a role in bringing down a President of his own party for the good of the nation. Imagine that.