Where have all the leaders gone? Not to Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pale in comparison to such predecessors as Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, George Mitchell and Howard Baker.
Those were congressional leaders who knew how to lead -- and how to compromise. By contrast, today's leaders -- and other recent ones -- seem to do little more than enforce conformity and abuse the opposition. The chaos that is Congress, as evidenced by a blizzard of competing health care bills and increasing partisan rancor on a wide range of issues, is a failure of leadership. These people just aren't getting it done.
Politics has always been about winning, but there was a time when it also seemed to be about governing. Part of the reason was that, back then -- before 1994 -- politicians knew that their adversaries weren't their enemies. O'Neill, the former House speaker, was known to have an after-hours drink with his adversary-in-chief, then President Ronald Reagan. They would fight tooth-and-nail over policy, then the two Irishmen would enjoy one another's company. It's hard to imagine Pelosi or Reid doing the same with their Republican counterparts in Congress.
They are responsible for their leadership, of course, but the decline in performance didn't start with them. It began when Newt Gingrich became House speaker after the 1994 congressional elections. He grabbed power by becoming a metaphorical bomb-thrower. No accusation was too base to level against Democrats, in his book, if it would help Republicans end decades in the congressional minority.
That was the signal: Anything goes. Our political discourse and, inevitably, the quality of leadership declined as a continuing cycle of insult and vengeance took hold.
And it's bled out into the country. With the eager assistance of crackpot radio and television personalities who will spin any lie to advance their cause, Americans themselves have become increasingly intolerant of political differences. Witness the ridiculous allegations leveled during the local health care meetings held by representatives. Witness Rep. Joe Wilson offending the decorum of the House of Representatives by shouting an insult at President Obama. Witness Kayne West, Serena Williams, Michael Richards, Don Imus and all the others who have behaved in ways that force them to apologize, some more convincingly than others.
It's no wonder our leaders, too often, are less than they should be. They swim in the same water as the rest of us. They are us. Yet that is an insufficient excuse for weak leadership, and the country still produces leaders who accomplish goals without demonizing their opposition: President Obama and his 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain, are two, and there are others.
Reid and Pelosi need to rethink their approach to governance. They can be tough as nails -- Tip O'Neill was surely that -- without leading their followers into temptation.