Over the past six weeks, three Democratic members of the House of Representatives -- Henry Waxman and George Miller of California and Michigan Representative John Dingell -- have announced their retirement from Congress. Unbelievably, the three represent a total of 160 years of seniority, institutional expertise and memory,
leadership and accomplishment. Unlike many, many representatives and senators over the past generation or so, Waxman, Miller and Dingell were legislative titans -- members who actually accomplished big things by authoring and enacting much of the nation's most significant laws. Their areas of interest and expertise ranged from education and labor to healthcare, clean water and clear air.
John Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, took over his father's seat in 1955. "Big John" first stepped foot on the House floor in 1933 -- the year his father was elected, and was actually present on March 4, 1933 when, as a 7-year old, he heard FDR delivered his first inaugural address. The younger Dingell was sworn into office in December 1955 by legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn . . . a full six years before the birth of future President Barack Obama . . .
For years Dingell was chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he -- like his father before him -- pushed for universal health care. In announcing his retirement Dingell -- unlike Representatives Waxman and Miller and more than a dozen other retiring members of Congress -- angrily cited what he called the "obnoxious" nature of an institution riven by acrimony and gridlock for his pending departure. "There is going to be a lot of blaming and finger-pointing back and forth, but all of us are at fault,” Mr. Dingell said in remarks to a chamber of commerce meeting in Michigan.
For much of our history, collegiality and compromise were hallmarks of the American political process. Although disagreements on policy, strategy and goals might be keen and sharply defined, elected representatives lived and worked, for the most part, by a code of conduct whose tenets included civility and mutual respect. Oh yes, arguments could be both fierce and contentious; one would not expect anything less from the only nation in history created largely by attorneys. When I first arrived on Capitol Hill in the summer of 1969, it was commonplace for people from both sides of the aisle to socialize at the end of the work day -- either on the softball diamond during good weather, or some local watering hole like the "Hawk and Dove" or the now lamentably razed "Carroll Arms." Today, such camaraderie is nearly impossible. Among the more hyper-partisan members of Congress, it is both impermissible and unforgivable. As an example, when Speaker Boehner spends an hour with President Obama talking things over (as he did the other day), his right flank scars him with the Mark of Cain, thus making it imperative that he downplay the contretemps. When a Republican member of the House or Senate votes with Democrats to raise the nation's debt ceiling -- or approve a judicial nominee or suggest that perhaps we might consider background checks on people purchasing guns -- that politician is seen as having gone over to the dark side. And although one can certainly find similar instances among Democrats, they do not appear to be nearly as common or severe.
Is it any wonder why some of the best, most professional members of Congress are having their ticket stamped and getting the hell out of Dodge?
The other day, former President Bill Clinton visited Kentucky. His purpose: to raise campaign cash for Democratic Senate nominee Alison Grimes, who is hoping to defeat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In downplaying Clinton's visit to The Bluegrass State, Senator Rand Paul (whose support for McConnell is somewhere between tepid and ice cold) told Fox News' Sean Hannity:
"I think the Democrats mistake Bill Clinton's popularity. We have a lot of conservative Democrats in our state who go to church each week and really don't approve of his behavior, what he's done with women, with sexual harassment in the workplace. A lot of Democrats in our state don't approve of that kind of behavior . . . . I think he's a bad role model for the workplace, for women's rights, for all of that. And I think frankly they ought to be a little embarrassed to be associated or be seen with him."
(It should be noted that when it comes to women's issues like the Violence Against Women Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act to name but two, Senator Paul's record is, to be diplomatic, about as healthy as chicken-fried steak and biscuits with gravy.)
Senator Paul, is, of course, bulking up his über-conservative credentials; a sign that he is giving serious consideration to running for President in 2016. His attacks on Bill Clinton over a 20 year old scandal are his way of attacking putative frontrunner Hillary Clinton without mentioning her by name.
How obvious. How incredibly facile. How Manichean.
Manichean. For the uninitiated, Manichaeism (also referred to as "Manicheanism") is a dualistic religious system created by the third-century Persian prophet Mani (c. 216-274 C.E.). A fascinating mixture of Gnostic Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and a dash of Judaism, Manichaeism's basic doctrine posits that there is an eternal conflict between light and dark, between good and evil. (For anyone interested in learning a bit more about this fascinating religion, I highly recommend Judith Mann's brief -- 32 pages -- 2013 work Manichaeism 101.) When one refers to a viewpoint, philosophy or strategy as "Manichean" therefore, one is classifying it as utterly black and white; either completely good or irrevocably evil. But in a world in which ten million shades of grey fight for a moment's supremacy, Manichaeism represents a peril of gargantuan proportion. In the political realm, a Manichean worldview not only prohibits bipartisanship, compromise and basic civility; it makes them into sins:
- Bill Clinton fools around with women -- therefore he is pure evil and must never be forgiven or given credence;
- Barack Obama told an untruth ("If you like your health insurance you can keep it") -- therefore everything he does, says or thinks must be dismissed;
- Dick Cheney is the epitome of evil because he lied America into invading Iraq;
- John McCain publicly declared that Barack Obama is "a good Christian family man," thus making him a malevolent heretic in the eyes of many.
And on and on.
Generally speaking, people -- from the most anonymous to those who devote themselves to what used to be called "public service" -- are a mixture of good and bad, of human strengths and human weaknesses and foibles. (Even Dick Cheney can be lauded for his progressive attitude regarding gay marriage.) Dismissing out of hand those with whom we disagree and then treating them as vessels of utter darkness is the act of a spoiled child. Consigning those who evince human frailty to the trash heap of ignominy places a perilous roadblock in the pathway of progress. It is precisely because there is so much Manichaeism at work in contemporary society that a washed-up one-hit wonder like Ted Nugent can gain respect in some circles by publicly referring to the President of the United States as "sub-human slime," and about-to-become former Representative Dave Camp (R-MI) and his 700+ page tax code overhaul can be trashed within a half-hour of issuance by virtually his entire party because he dares to impose a surtax on the wealthy. In the Manichean worldview, no tax increase ever for any reason equals good; any tax increase for any reason equals evil. In the Manichean worldview when someone you disagree with commits even a single sin (whether mortal, venal or questionable) it negates virtually anything and everthing that person has ever done, thought or attempted. In a Manichean world, there are only saints without sin and sinners incapable of redemption.
Although the Manichean religion itself died out centuries ago, the Manichean philosophy and worldview are alive and well in 2014.
Is it any wonder people who disagree are becoming increasingly disagreeable?
Is that any wonder that Congress can't get anything done?
Is it any wonder that Waxman, Miller and Dingell are retiring?
©2014 Kurt F. Stone