In Washington, October is when the great marketplace of ideas comes out to play—and their authors are not far behind. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, author of a new memoir, is out and about waging his war of words; as are many others, including Tom Brokaw and Henry Kissinger, taking part in this autumn ritual.
As the capital buzzed with men brandishing their prized grassfed ideas at the fair, I caught some mid-flight at the lavish Newseum and the somber stage of Ford's Theatre. Searching for bits and pieces of wisdom, let me share nuggets I found sifting through my reporter's notebook.
First, Timothy Geithner, the Treasury secretary, caused a ripple when he speculated Wall Street wasn't grateful for the bail out from the federal government because people generally resent having to ask for help. Fancy that, no thank you note from Wall Street and discontent blowing across the land.
Direct and gruff, Chicagoan William Daley, the White House chief of staff, was also a guest speaker at the Washington Ideas Forum, a two-day event sponsored by The Atlantic, the Aspen Institute, and the Newseum. In a town of polished shiny people, he pleased people by uttering some simple truths. The American people are "stressed out." In hard times, it will be a "tough, close election." Too bad about Congress and its "light schedule," he said. None of this is news; nevertheless it was refreshing to hear it straight from a man on top. Thank you, sir. Nice to know you know times are tough.
Cheney's candor was not so bracing. The former vice president has no regrets. None. Zero. When Steve Clemons of The Atlantic, who moderated a cozy chat Cheney had with his daughter Liz, asked him if there was anything he'd do differently in retrospect, it was as suspected. "Nope, I'd rather be respected," insinuating he was respected by the American people. In shameless fashion, he took credit for keeping terrorists attacks at bay for seven years! The Bush administration just fell down on the job Sept. 11, 2001—hey, one day in eight years. Oh, and by the way, he's all for President Obama's recent spate of drone killings on the ground in places like Yemen. To finish off his interview, he told an anecdote about his aggressive big dog "Dave" vs. President Bush's little dog—"who looked like a squirrel"—at Camp David. The pleasure he got from a dogfight was palpable—and yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's the same Cheney still prosecuting his pet "Global War of Terror" every way he knows how.
Tom Brokaw, the former NBC anchor and engaged observer of popular culture, came to talk about a far better idea: a national service model for young people. Troubled about the poor table of choices set for young adults now, he recommends the government establish a system of service academies in a public/private partnership. Brokaw's distress over the rough passage the nation is going through resonated with his audience at the Newseum, as he noted a refrain he hears often: "I'm afraid my kids won't have the same life that I have." Though he stretched the case for the so-called "Greatest Generation," he's spot-on about what ails younger adults finding their way—wondering whither the American dream. Brokaw, born in 1940, hardly looked aged, yet embodied the question: is this a country for old men?
Oh, Henry. Then Nixon's Secretary of State sat there like a Biedermeier period piece. It may be more how Kissinger says what he says—in his wise Old World way—than what he actually professes. The canny global realist on China (subject of his latest book) says it is our task and their task to form a cooperative approach. Okay, hope everyone got that?
Members of the media chimed in, orchestrated by Margaret Carlson. They dickered over the Republican nominee-to-be, though everyone agreed it could only be Mitt Romney. They scarcely hid their disappointment. Carlson astutely expressed the reporter's lament that it was hard to "fall in love with" Romney. Jake Tapper added that Obama has experienced a sea change: "He's no longer the great conciliator." That was a long time coming. And Chris Matthews rambled up to a good short point on the 2012 election: "It's about the future, stupid."
From all the town's fair, the saddest tale of the republic's frail health was told at a Ford's Theatre discussion.
Emanuel Cleaver II, a black Missouri Democrat, and Mike Simpson, a white Idaho Republican, sat side by side and shared their sorrow that they don't even know their House colleagues, new or old, across the party aisle. If Congress is uncivil, it's because society is less civil. One nodded vigorously as the other talked passionately. They said members of the rancorous Congress don't live here in Washington anymore, so they don't socialize with each other's families or each other as individuals. This trend started early in the '90s, of returning to their districts as soon as the bell rang. Only now is the bill coming due: House members are finding it all too easy to clash head-on with colleagues they don't know personally in breakdowns in the flow of the body politic. There is literally not enough common ground under their feet in the capital, not time nor world enough to sit down and work it out among friends, not enemies. Even Daley found the political atmosphere colder and "very different" than a dozen years ago when he was Commerce secretary in the Clinton administration.
Here's my idea. Politics is the most personal face-to-face business in the book. So don't let the Capitol freeze over when a human touch could keep it warm, with democracy at work.