In 1981, former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon stopped by the White House on their way to Egypt, where they were to lead the official delegation to the funeral of assassinated President Anwar Sadat. Taking note of the then rare occasion of three ex-presidents standing together, Sen. Robert Dole quipped, “Carter, Ford and Nixon: see no evil, hear no evil and evil.”
Since then, medical science, the relative youth of those elected — and the karma that rewards the 94-year-old Carter for being a singularly decent human being — has increased the size of the Former Presidents Club. And it has been a surprisingly friendly group.
Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush, and the two later worked together on various humanitarian projects and project an image of being good friends. Michelle Obama and George W. Bush showed quite a bit of mutual warmth at Barbara Bush’s funeral, while Barack Obama was much more a public gentleman to Melania Trump than her husband ever has been.
It can seem odd, in a nation where politics for so many has devolved into a truly primitive form of tribalism, that the politicians who fought the hardest, suffered the most grief and reached the pinnacle of power now seem to show so much regard and affection for one another, even as supporters of each would be happy to see the other guys in jail.
The logical explanation is that, once you’ve been president, the world looks different. The experiences you’ve had might not be relatable to nearly everyone else on the planet. Except to other presidents. So, no matter their personal history or their political views, they become friends. And, in a world with so much political hostility, that is a remarkably good example to set.
The death of U.S. Sen. John McCain brought out many memories, and new examples, of the kind of respect and courtesy that seem old and quaint. One that received a lot of media and online play was the moment of the 2008 presidential campaign when McCain went out of his way to defend Obama, his rival, from a charge by a McCain supporter that Obama wasn’t trustworthy because he was, “an Arab.”
McCain’s reply was, "No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. That’s what this campaign is all about.”
If that were a drafted speech, it would be fair to slam McCain for saying that the reason he knows Obama isn’t an Arab is that he is a decent family man, which means that Arabs can’t be decent family men. But, in that ad lib, that’s clearly not what McCain meant.
He was showing a gentleman’s respect to his worthy rival, an urge that, probably, came in no small part from the fact that Obama and McCain were then both members of the U.S. Senate. And that’s a club that, while much larger than the association of former presidents, can push people of different backgrounds, beliefs and political views toward a level of mutual respect, if not downright friendship.
That’s what came through in the moving eulogy for McCain delivered the other day by Joe Biden, another former Senate colleague of McCain’s.
At its most transactional, it is a behavior known as senatorial courtesy. And it is something we could use a lot more of.
Yes, the tradition was abused when Mitch McConnell silenced Elizabeth Warren (“Nevertheless, she persisted”) as she was opposing the nomination of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general. Speak no ill of a colleague can be taken too far.
And there is room to be suspicious of the Senate being too clubish. As was illustrated in the 1962 movie “Advise and Consent,” where British and Canadian actors were the only ones deemed to have the proper speaking voices for U.S. senators, and most of the deals were made in the smoke-filled apartment belonging to the mistress of the majority leader.
Those smoke-filled rooms are looking more attractive all the time. They recall a time when people such as Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch, now a nauseatingly obsequious toady to the hyper-partisan president, could work with such people as Sen. Ted Kennedy. When prairie senators Bob Dole and George McGovern could invent food stamps.
As we consider such reasonable ideas as moving the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management to Utah, we might also consider restoring an age where all members of Congress — and their families — belong to the same social circle.
We’d have to get past admiration of the pseudo-rebels like former Rep. Jason Chaffetz sleeping on a cot in his office. And we’d have to reconsider our not unjustified lack of sympathy for members of Congress who excuse misbehavior on the grounds that they just can’t live on their $174,000-a-year salary. That’s more than twice the median annual household income, but it’s also a strain for any decent family man or woman who is expected to maintain domiciles in Washington and back home.
It might be better to follow the example of officer housing on a big military base — or Bathtub Row in Los Alamos, where the scientists of the Manhattan Project lived — and provide, at taxpayer expense, all members of Congress simple but decent family quarters at, say, Virginia’s Ft. Belvoir. And go to some lengths to assign Democrats and Republicans to live among one another, not on separate streets or in different neighborhoods.
If nothing else, they’d have nice things to say about each other at funerals. And, maybe, while they were still alive.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Tribune, is trying to delay being turned out to the Grizzly Old Editors Home. firstname.lastname@example.org