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Cooperative spirit lost among political leaders

It was spring of 1977. I'd been working as a writer in the Assembly for less than 100 days. I had finished writing copy for the newsletter of my own assemblyman, Dick Keane, and brought it to him for approval. There was a contentious debate raging on the Assembly floor, and it was bitterly partisan. The reason for the rancorous rhetoric has faded from my memory but the recall of my outrage at hearing my "team" being slandered by the opposition has not.

Keane signed off on the newsletter and said he wanted me to go to dinner with him after the session ended. I met him at the restaurant and saw a gaggle of assemblymen from the other side of the aisle seated at the end of the bar.

I whispered to Keane, "Our enemy is here." He responded, "No, our dinner date's here."

I was appalled. After all the invective that had been thrown around the Assembly chamber that afternoon, I found it implausible that we would break bread with those who had demeaned us so virulently, and I said so.

"That was just politics," Keane said. "Now we have to do something for Western New York."

I sat silently during the dinner and was bewildered that people who had expressed such utter disdain for each other a few hours earlier were speaking cordially and cooperatively about the real business of government.

I think of that lesson often and always ruefully these days. It was a teaching moment in the difference between politics and government.

My practice of politics is part of my past now and, sadly, so is any semblance of the cooperative spirit that I saw in Albany three decades ago. It has been replaced in government at all levels by a perpetual campaign that finds both sides of the political aisle now separated by a moat rather than a few feet of carpet.

Debates are now personal and venomous. Campaign wounds harden into scars that deform political discourse and render any hope of compromise or cooperation impossible. Cooperation is seen as capitulation and consensus is a contrary concept to governance. As a result, little gets done. Heels are dug in so deep that minds shut down to new ideas or competing approaches to problem solving.

Long ago, I was taught that the American spirit was something indomitable in the modern world. Our industrial engines and our entrepreneurial spirit drove the entire world. Not long after that, I learned the sad truth that the American spirit was driven not as much by our common goals but as by shared hatreds. We functioned best when we had an adversary on which to focus our hatred.

The end of the Cold War saw us turn our hatred inward, toward each other, toward ideas different than our own. When we did, political campaigns degenerated into character assassination.

News was delivered with a slant, if at all. All day "news" channels were filled with invective, innuendo and enmity. In that rarefied air, it has become impossible to disagree with another point of view. Debate devolves into shrill shouts and personal attacks. Ideas are no longer the grist of the political mill and sound public policy is no longer produced. Campaigns can be blood sport. Government should never be.

Maybe we need our elected officials sitting down at dinner together more often. Perhaps that will get them over the notion of government as a contact sport and help them recall Robert Kennedy's advice: "that which unites us must be stronger than that which divides us."

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