The political climate in Washington is so bad it has become increasingly difficult for me to watch the evening news. I grew up on Capitol Hill and spent half my life working there. I left when I saw Congress becoming increasingly polarized and dysfunctional. It is of little comfort to say I saw it coming.
I remember Barry Goldwater and Hubert Humphrey. When I came to Washington, they were the polar extremes. You couldn’t be further to the right than Goldwater or further to the left than Humphrey. They disagreed on just about everything, but they managed to disagree without being disagreeable. They were friends and treated each other with respect.
Frank Moss was my patron and mentor. In his first election, he defined himself by chosing principle over party, turning down a contribution from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that would have ensured his election when he learned there were strings attached. They said their support was conditioned on a promise that they could have his vote whenever the lobbyists providing the cash wanted it. Moss said, “No”, beat the odds, and won anyway. In the process, he earned the respect of his colleagues and a reputation for integrity.
My friend, Arthur Flemming, served every president from Coolidge to Clinton. I used to enjoy asking him to compare them. Particularly memorable is his description of the way they practiced their faiths and what it said about them: Eisenhower issued a standing order to never turn down an invitation from a religious group if it was possible for him to be where they wanted him to be. Rather than go to church, Nixon, in keeping with his paranoia, initiated the practice of bringing religious leaders into the White House to hold services in the Rose Garden. The Clintons went to the same church (Foundry United Methodist) as the Doles until two things happened – word got out they were there together and Bob Dole decided to run for President. The fact that they couldn’t be seen worshipping together said volumes about how far we have devolved.
Of all the roles in all the administrations, Arthur said he most enjoyed serving as Secretary of what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under Eisenhower. “Every day I went to work I knew I was going to be able to do something that would help a lot of people,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to get to work.”
Claude Pepper’s career included three terms in the Senate and then a return to Congress at the age of 65. He served another twenty-six years in the House of Representatives. He applied Ockham’s Razor for me, distilling political philosophy and defining his purpose in three words: Make Things Better.
John Heinz didn’t have to be there. As the heir to the Heinz Company, he didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to do but he chose public service and talked with pride about his grandfather’s role in establishing the Food and Drug Administration.
I remember clearly a hearing we held focusing on a nursing home chain that had killed more than a dozen patients by withholding the nutritional supplement – Ensure. The product was expensive, the President of the chain explained, and his company had to make a profit. Surely Heinz, as a businessman, would understand that. I still remember the fire in Heinz’ eyes when he turned to me and said, “Give me whatever you have. I want to bury this guy.”
These were men of principle. Agree with their politics or not, no one questioned their honor or integrity. I can’t help wondering where they have gone. But when I do at times like this when it hard to turn on the television, I remember one of the enduring truths of humanity – We are at our best when things are the worst.
“I understand finally, why the love of God created men responsible for one another and gave them hope as a virtue,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote. “Since it made of each of them the ambassador of the same God, in hands of each rests the salvation of all.”
Heroes will rise.