(Just a Little) Senate Civility

Two recent bipartisan displays of collegiality show how the game should be played.

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There were a few moments, in recent days, of a marked civility, and even collegiality, in the bitterly divided Senate.

The unusual events were associated with Sen. Ted Kennedy's 15,000th vote in the Senate and Sen. Tim Johnson's return to the floor after nearly dying of a brain hemorrhage.

Republicans joined Democrats in the celebration of their Democratic colleagues Kennedy and Johnson, one a liberal lion from Massachusetts and the other a quiet moderate from the plains of South Dakota. Even the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, was effusive in his praise of Kennedy, noting his dedicated energy and friendliness to new Republican senators, who are often awed to just be there.

Kennedy's outspoken liberalism on the issues was forgotten for a few moments, even by Republicans who often use him as a money-raising target.

Johnson's return to the Senate was an emotional moment of togetherness. Johnson stood unsteadily at his desk, his speech still slurred, and spoke of being given a second chance in life.

Nearly half the Senate was there to see him, eventually rising as one in a standing ovation for Johnson. Some tears were shed, including those of this native South Dakotan watching the senator's return unfold on C-SPAN.

As for the collapse of civility in recent decades, plenty of blame can be shared by both sides of the aisle.

On the Republican side, many point to the rejected recommended appointment of Sen. John Tower of Texas as George H. W. Bush's secretary of defense in 1989. GOP-ers were angry at the public airing of Tower's alleged drinking and womanizing (as if Democrats did not have some bouts with booze and skirt-chasing they were hiding from public view).

For the Democrats, the heavy-handed leadership of Republican leaders Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and others went over the line, culminating in President Clinton's impeachment in the Lewinsky affair. Of course, Gingrich, DeLay, and other GOP heavies harbored their own infidelities even as they condemned Clinton for his.

Some of us old-timers long for the days when politicians could fight during their work day and relax at night with each other, and even reporters (now considered by some as the enemy). For example, take the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, a liberal Democrat admired in both parties for his sense of humor. There was the same feeling toward Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, a deeply conservative Republican with a ready smile when the verbal combat was over. Laxalt, incidentally, was the only Republican senator, past or present, to show up at a memorial for Nelson held in the Senate office building.

Perhaps it helped that Nelson and Laxalt, both governors before they arrived in Washington, had to reach across the aisle now and then for a consensus.

As they fire up their troops in coming weeks for the divisive debates expected in Congress, McConnell and Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid may think about the kind of civility that Nelson and Laxalt brought to Congress. It would be welcome.