America in desperate need of a few political healers

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Thursday, December 7, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Soon now, if America is to avoid partisan gridlock, and worse, we will need a cadre of political healers to step forward.

We will need people of the sort we used to describe as statesmen (though their gender is of no particular consequence) who are capable of helping us rise above our partisan interests and turn our attention to bringing America together.

And the haunting question is this: Where shall we find them?

Ask your friends to mention people they count in the ranks of statesmen and political healers, and they’re likely to be on the third or fourth nomination before it occurs to you that they are naming people who have quit elective politics: Pat Moynihan, Alan Simpson, Paul Simon, Howard Baker, Lee Hamilton, George Mitchell, Parren Mitchell, Nancy Kassebaum, Bob Michel, Leon Panetta.

Some of these patriots aged out of politics, of course, but it is likely that some of them left because there was no longer much demand for their particular skills and attitudes. Maybe the recent times didn’t demand such leaders.

But if it’s true that the times create the leaders they require — and if it’s true that the months and years ahead will require leaders of the sort I have described — it’s fair to wonder where and whether we will find the necessary statesmen.

George W. Bush believes himself to be one of those politicians capable of reaching across political lines to do what needs to be done. Likewise with Joe Lieberman. Would both these men be too clearly identified with the very division that needs to be healed? And if not they, who?

It’s not very encouraging to look to the House and Senate leadership. The salient feature of congressional leadership in recent years is its near manic partisanship. Think of the Gingrich "revolution" — think of the entire impeachment debacle — and you’ll see what I mean. Hardly an elected soul stepped forward to assert the interest of America, as distinct from the partisan warfare over gleeful regicide.

Happily, there are people around who might qualify for the sort of healing role I think America will require — though you have to scratch beneath the surface of leadership to find them: John Breaux, D-La., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., in the Senate; David Price, D-N.C., and Ray LaHood, R-Ill., a Bob Michel protege, in the House. Other, perhaps less obscure, candidates might include Thad Cochran, John McCain, John Lewis — and any number of men and women I have insulted by not naming.

They are fierce partisans, all, but they strike me as people who understand that partisanship is, at some levels, a game and must sometimes be put aside in the national interest. (Other, more famous members of the Congress seem to see the interest of their party as synonymous with the interest of America — and compromise as synonymous with capitulation. We can’t count on them to help us out of the mess they have helped to create.)

Interestingly enough, the difficulties that lie ahead with an almost evenly divided Congress and a president whose legitimacy will forever be questioned require no particular genius to address.

As the late John W. Gardner, founder of Common Cause, put it in a different context, "Every informed American understands the gravity of the problems we face today. Yet the problems themselves are not as perplexing as the questions they raise concerning our capacity to gather our forces and act — a capacity commonly and much too vaguely described as ‘political will.’ "

Are there on the American scene men and women who can help us find the will to gather our forces and act in the national interest? Will necessity create them?

Perhaps. Or maybe it will turn out that Harry Truman had it right — that history doesn’t make leaders, but leaders make history. Or as the Missouri haberdasher put it: "Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better."

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