Keep the art of compromise alive in Washington
Scripps Howard News Service
Must credit The Providence Journal
By JERRY M. LANDAY
The Providence Journal
If victorious shoot-from-the-lip Republican leaders still have any respect for their founding saint, Abraham Lincoln, it would be well that they act on some of his wisdom: ěThe time comes upon every public man when it is best for him to keep his lips closed.î
ěThe mandate for change is directed at the other guys,î Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell growled just days after the GOPís stunning victories on Nov. 2. That joyless and uncompromising machismo was softened by the ultra-con political manager Sal Russoís Lincolnesque observation that ěMost people recognize that you have to give to get sometimes.î
Republican enforcer Rush Limbaugh was having none of it: ěWhat is all this talk about compromise? Weíve got nothing to compromise.î Whatís with Rushís ěweî? No oneís elected him to anything.
Hard-bottomed members of the Gritty Old Party had best remember three things: What happened to them in 2006 and 2008 can happen to them again in 2012. The centrist voters who swing elections, including the one just past, didnít vote for bully-boying by Rupert Murdochís gunsels. They voted for productive compromise-propelled progress on Capitol Hill, not more gridlock, with ěNo, No, a Thousand Times Noî as their refrain. Tough talk is hardly the formula for progress that advances democratic process. Weíve got a great nation with a compromise-forged Constitution to show for it. And our history cradles a bloody lesson of what happens when compromise fails ó the Civil War and its 600,000 dead.
On that very point, almost half a century ago, a Spanish cabinet minister, Manuel Fraga, gave me an eloquent history lesson as a young journalist when I first arrived in Europe as a foreign correspondent.
I asked Fraga about the bloody results of the Spanish Civil War that had ended 25 years earlier and brought El Caudillo, Gen. Francisco Franco, to power. He had ruled Spain as dictator for nearly three decades. Now Franco was aging and ill, and Iíd gone to Madrid to explore the question ěAfter Franco, who and what?î That civil war was a cruel and savage dress rehearsal for World War II to shortly break over Europe, with Hitlerís Germany and Mussoliniís Italy siding with the Spanish generals whoíd staged a coup, and Stalinís Soviet Union assisting the Republican government that was unsuccessfully resisting it.
During our interview, I asked Fraga the kind of dumb question that young journalists are given some license to ask, though not too many of them. And the minister handled me patiently, with a gentle history lesson. ěWhy couldnít Spain emerge from that war as a democracy?î I asked. He replied: ěDo you know how many political parties we had in Spain struggling for power before that terrible war broke out?î Fraga asked; then answered: ěMore than 30,î he said, answering his own question, ěall of them trying to govern, while refusing to stay together and compromise, and that weakened us gravely. We gave up on letting the democratic process work in 1936, and that opened us to the terrible civil struggle.
ěWhen it was young, your nation inherited a wonderful bequest from Great Britainís great statesmen, the gift of political compromise. Your country put the process of compromise to work when you formed your first government, and your Founders used it to create consensus in passing and ratifying your great Constitution. America briefly forgot that lesson and you had your own civil war, as we did; but your politicians remembered it in the healing, and that made you a great nation. The United States became a world economic power because of it. You learned an important lesson: Getting half the loaf is far better than winning none.î
Fraga ended with a prophecy: ěWe Spanish will learn it, too, and our economy will allow all Spaniards to get a share of the loaf, and we will unite and again become one of Europeís great countries.î
That was in 1965, and I have never forgotten the history lesson I should have understood before going to Madrid on the assignment. Spain is having a stressful time dealing with a weakened economy right now, but its firmly established parliamentary process will eventually lead it back to the prosperity it enjoyed after gradually and peacefully emerging into democracy after Francoís death. I share Fragaís patient lesson with those who read these words, especially some gentlemen in Washington who will hopefully give us agreed solutions on a range of serious matters, speak wisely in public, and steer us away from the clog of gridlock and into productive compromise.
(Jerry M. Landay was a news correspondent for ABC and CBS, and taught journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana. For more stories, visit scrippsnews.com.)
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