One of the impressive things about the many columns and comments that followed the death this week of Sen. Edward Kennedy was the clear respect and affection he commanded from people at all points on the political spectrum.
It’s a situation that may not be unique, but it is at least all too rare in the current world of Washington politics.
Kennedy was an unabashed liberal with an unwavering political agenda. He and everyone in Washington knew where he stood. Yet, he also knew how to work respectfully with other lawmakers to reach compromises that moved his causes forward. He had an ability to find common ground with people who might never have thought that was possible and to do it in a way that engendered respect and, often, true affection.
Many longtime members of Congress, including former Kansas Sens. Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum, talk about how much the atmosphere in Washington has changed in recent years. Positions have gotten more polarized, they say, and lawmakers have lost the ability to disagree but also remain friends and retain the ability to work together to find solutions.
During a visit to Lawrence this week, U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore, D-Kan., offered an interesting observation on the Capitol climate. The relative convenience of modern travel, he said, has caused many members of Congress to choose to leave their families in their home states and commute back and forth to Washington on weekends. Although it could be argued that those trips keep them in better touch with their constituents, it also comes with a price in terms of lost collegiality in Washington.
When travel was more difficult, most senators and representatives brought their families with them to Washington. Their children attended schools together. Their families attended church together. There were many opportunities for social interaction that had little connection to political issues. The result, Moore said, was that people formed friendships that weren’t based on political allegiances and found that, even when they disagreed with one of those friends on a policy issue, it was more difficult to demonize them in a way that too often occurs today.
Moore’s explanation probably doesn’t tell the whole story, but it is a plausible contributing factor to the polarized, contentious environment that seems to dominate Washington politics today.
Whether or not you agreed with Sen. Kennedy’s politics, his success at working across party lines was an admirable trait. Perhaps his passing will act as a reminder to other lawmakers that if they look and listen hard enough, they usually can find something to like or admire in their colleagues — as well as common ground on issues that matter to America.