PHILADELPHIA — When the luck of the draw made him the chairman of the National Governors Association in this, the centennial year of its first meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt — Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty knew how and where he wanted to celebrate the occasion.
He invited all the living former governors to join those now in office at this birthplace of the Republic. And so it was that on Saturday evening, a disappointing turnout of 27 state executives mingled with 32 of their predecessors around the Liberty Bell to toast our unique form of government.
I have been covering these meetings since 1962, and there have been many memorable moments. At that first session, in Hershey, Pa., Nelson Rockefeller of New York threw a civil rights resolution on the table — just to watch the Democrats fight among themselves — and Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings of South Carolina responded by launching the first and only filibuster I’ve ever witnessed at these sessions.
Back when governors took themselves less seriously than they do now, they put the whole conference aboard the S.S. Independence in 1967 and sailed it from New York to the Virgin Islands and back. In 1975, when Louisiana’s Edwin Edwards hosted the conference in New Orleans, the oil and gas industry, on the last night, loaded up several fake paddle-wheel steamboats with more clams and oysters and booze than I’ve ever seen — and people got seriously wasted.
This year was no match for that, but for four hours on July 12, in the new home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, historian Richard Norton Smith and journalist Cokie Roberts led the governors in a discussion that was the best I’ve ever heard from them.
The reason I like listening to governors is that they live in the real world. They are close to their constituents and, unlike members of Congress, they have to balance their budgets and make hard choices. They have less time or tolerance for political games. All of that — and more — was on display in the dialogue.
It began on a high note when Smith asked them to reflect on the concept of states’ rights. Linwood Holton of Virginia, who a generation ago sent his young children to what had been an all-black school in Richmond, said, “For 100 years, states’ rights was used as a shield against the Constitution — a code word for white supremacy. When I was governor, I had the opportunity to say, after all these years, Virginia is part of this Republic. And, with Doug Wilder, we became the first state to elect an African-American governor.”
Later, other veterans — Democrats such as Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis and Roy Romer, and Republicans such as John Sununu, John Engler and George Voinovich — recalled how they had worked across party lines to nudge forward national policy on education, welfare and other issues.
But Smith and Roberts did not allow this to become simply an exercise in self-congratulation. Real differences were aired.
Sununu provoked a sharp debate on federal and state roles in education. Dukakis, reflecting on the rapid collapse of the Massachusetts effort to achieve universal health care when he was in office, said that if health care is left to the states, “it isn’t going to happen.” But Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell said her state is already insuring 97 percent of its children and can do more.
Two members of the Bush Cabinet, Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne and Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt, who were notably successful chairmen of the NGA, came back for the discussion. It was impossible not to consider how different these last eight years might have been if George Bush, during his years as Texas governor, had been more deeply involved with his statehouse colleagues and had absorbed more of the lessons of bipartisanship.
Daniel J. Evans, the former governor of Washington, commented near the end of the afternoon that he wished “the two presidential candidates had been here — to listen, not to talk.”
Both John McCain and Barack Obama have their roots in a Congress suffering from massive public disdain. They need to listen to governors — and learn.
David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.