Politics Suffers the Passing of the Happy-Hour Bipartisans

Obama should take a lesson from Washington's late men of ideas.


This summer has been "a summer of death," as Chris Matthews put it recently. Over just a few months, we've lost the eternal optimist, Jack Kemp; the "Prince of Darkness," Bob Novak; the father of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol; and now most recently, the language maven of the right, Bill Safire. They were all thoughtful conservatives, known for making a strong, principled case for limited government, fiscal responsibility, and unlimited opportunity—and in persuasive terms that attracted people of all walks of life. The Republican Party has suffered profoundly at the loss of each of them. We all have.

As much as each was a man of ideas, a leader who cajoled, convinced, and inspired others to join his cause, they each also embodied the ways of old Washington—the days when politicians and pundits fought like cats and dogs by day, then put it all aside at night. No bitterness, no animosity, no screaming like what we see now, and ultimately, they had the ability to work with opponents when necessary.

Novak was a conservative but worked, and impressed, both sides of the aisle in writing his influential syndicated column with the late Rowland Evans. Jack Kemp, whom Peggy Noonan called the "Happy Warrior" at his death, was known for reaching outside the usual GOP circles to expand the "big tent" of the Republican Party.

These guys loved to debate—and preferred it to yelling at town hall meetings and carrying loaded guns. They wouldn't think of disrupting an address to a joint session of Congress by screaming, "You lie!" They liked to marshal their arguments and convince others with the power of their ideas. And they enjoyed the give-and-take of arguing with friends around town, trying to convince the other guy that he's got it all wrong.

Even before his Times column, Bill Safire loved being a speechwriter—someone whose job often involves helping craft arguments for the day's most important debates—for Richard Nixon. Safire and Jack Valenti, a Lyndon Johnson speechwriter, began the Judson Welliver Society, an alumni association of former presidential ghostwriters, and brought together some of the most partisan people in politics—the ones who write the words and help set the tone. Every other year, they'd gather a group of former presidential speechwriters for dinner, sometimes at Valenti's office downtown, sometimes at the Safires' home in the suburbs.

Republican and Democratic speechwriters would take turns answering one another, weaving in often hilarious, off-the-record stories about working with the greats of American politics. The food was always good and the booze flowed freely, but people came for the stories and the debate. The feeling of collegiality, the bipartisan give-and-take, the laughter at a tale well told—all kept us coming back. Those evenings always reminded me of the remark Ronald Reagan once made to Tip O'Neil: "Tip, you and I are political enemies only until 6 o'clock. It's 4 o'clock now. Can we pretend it's 6 o'clock?" Bill Safire's dinners were always held after 6 o'clock.

Safire was part of a dying breed that understood the importance of engaging people on the other side rather than merely screaming past them or preaching to one's own supporters. The fact that so many thoughtful conservatives like him have passed away this summer is reflected in the deteriorating tone of our politics now. What's slipping away is the belief that, in good writing and in civil politics, the best way to make a winning point is through the power of your arguments, not the volume of your voice.

In the world of Kristol and Kemp and Safire, words meant something. You couldn't do one thing and say another. And when you said it, you'd better do so clearly, concisely, accurately, and compellingly. One of Safire's favorite quotes speaks volumes about his approach to language and politics. It was an apocryphal comment attributed to the great orator Pericles, comparing himself to his countryman Demosthenes: "When Pericles speaks, the people say, 'How well he speaks.' But when Demosthenes speaks, the people say, 'Let us march!' "