Restoring Comity to Congress

By Charles Gibson

Charlie GibsonCharles Gibson

Shorenstein Center Reidy Fellow, Fall 2010
Former anchor, ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson

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It should not be surprising that long-time members of Congress talk nostalgically about “the old days” when friendships between Democrats and Republicans were commonplace, not the exception but the rule. They tell the story of Dan Rostenkowski, then a new Democrat in the House, driving home to Chicago every weekend with Republicans Bob Michel and Harold Collier. They would leave Thursday night, drive through the night, one at the wheel, another keeping the driver awake, and the third sleeping in the back of the station wagon. They would return Sunday night with the same arrangement. That was in the 1960s when members were reimbursed for only a few trips home each session of Congress. Those three members of opposing parties forged friendships that transcended any ideological battles as all three, particularly Rostenkowski and Michel, rose to leadership positions in the House.1 Then there were the early 1970s when George McGovern would take the floor of the Senate and rail against the Vietnam war claiming the Senate “reeked of blood,” and Bob Dole, a wounded veteran of World War II, would answer him in Senate speeches every bit as strident. The two would later be spotted walking arm-in-arm, laughing, the best of friends.2 In the 1980s, two old Irish ideologues, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, one fiercely conservative, the other an unreconstructed liberal, fought a “battle over the nation’s soul.” As Reagan’s tax-cutting proposals were debated in the House, O’Neill, speaking of the president, said, “He has no concern, no regard, no care for the little man of America. And I understand that. Because of his lifestyle, he never meets those people.” The president responded, calling O’Neill’s statement “sheer demagoguery.” The president called Tip the next day to smooth the waters and Tip said, “Old buddy, that’s politics. After 6 o’clock we can be friends, but before 6, it’s politics.”3

1. This is a story I first heard when covering the House of Representatives in 1981. Both Bob Michel and Dan Rostenkowski told me the story. In interviewing for this paper, three of those interviewed related the story as well. It is well known as an example of comity between members of opposite parties.
2. Thomas Mann & Norm Ornstein, The Broken Branch, Oxford University Press, paperback edition, 2008, p. 49.
3. This is a story Tip O’Neill loved to tell and which I heard from him on at least three occasions. For the exact wording of his quote, rather than recall it from memory, I relied on Gloria Borger, “A Tale of Two Titans,” U.S. News & World Report, June 21, 2004

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