How much different would things have been in terms of the tone of American politics if in 2000 President George Bush had held a dinner honoring his defeated Democratic opponent for the Presidency, Al Gore?
And how would the past four years have gone if he had held a dinner honoring John Kerry?
We’ll never know that — but the idea will be tested now after a remarkable night in which President Elect Barack Obama hosted a dinner in Washington D.C. to honor his defeated opponent for the Presidency, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain.
But it clearly wasn’t perfunctory: Obama used the dinner to praise McCain for the very qualities that have upset so many conservative Republicans and talk show hosts — McCain’s frequent journeys across the aisles to collaborate with Democrats on policies McCain believed were good for the country.
It was a tough, nearly 2-year-long battle that cost Americans upward of $1 billion just between the last two men left standing.
And tonight at a special D.C. dinner, on the eve of becoming the nation’s 44th president at Tuesday’s inauguration, ex-community organizer, ex-state senator, ex-U.S. senator, present president-elect Barack Obama praised his ex-rival as “an American hero.”
And praise him he did:
“I could stand here,” Obama said at one of three dinners he attended tonight in Washington, “and recite the long list of John’s bipartisan accomplishments. Campaign finance reform. Immigration. The Patients’ Bill of Rights. All those times he has crossed the aisle and risked the ire of his party for the good of his country.
“And yet, what makes John such a rare and courageous public servant is not the accomplishments themselves, but the true motivation behind them.
“It has not been a quest for fame or vanity that has driven this man. It has not been the need to compromise for politics’ sake that has shaped his distinguished career. It is rather a pure and deeply felt love of his country that comes from the painful knowledge of what life is like without it.”
The president-elect good-naturedly said that by agreement of the Democratic and Republican parties the vanquished Republican presidential nominee would have 30 seconds of rebuttal time. [Go to the link for the full text of the speech…]
What’s going on here?
Obama is getting some credit and will likely get more as being an innovator in trying to foster bipartisanship. But, in reality, his political behavior is increasingly indicative of a time in America’s past where policy disagreements didn’t mean you had to get yourself and your followers to detest your foes and try to destroy them. Debates were often fiery, even brutal. But, literally at the end of the day, opponents would respect each other as people worthy of respect.
The likely fall out? If this isn’t a perfunctory beginning — much like how Jimmy Carter wore a sweater when he became President but it fell by the wayside, as did Carter’s campaign persona as a smiling politician — it means he will be a)resetting the tone of American politics, b)marginalizing the minority among the American polity that doesn’t want to cooperate or think about collaborating with someone who doesn’t belong to their party or their ideology, whether far right or far left.
You can already see he is reaping some good media coverage, which can be instrumental in building not just a political image, but political clout:
In a major bipartisan appeal on the eve of his inauguration, Barack Obama called John McCain a hero and praised his history as someone who has sought common ground — without mentioning that Mr. McCain evinced little of that side during the presidential campaign.
“There are few Americans who understand this need for common purpose and common effort better than John McCain,” Mr. Obama said tonight at a dinner he is hosting for Mr. McCain at the Washington Hilton. “It is what he has strived for and achieved throughout his life. It is built into the very content of his character.”
The dinner and Mr. Obama’s strong praise for his former rival seem like a down payment on the cooperation that Mr. Obama is hoping for on his legislative agenda. Having Mr. McCain on his side could go a long way toward greasing the skids.
He joked that McCain, under the rules of the evening, would get a rebuttal. “We are glad that the days of rebuttals and campaigning are for now behind us,” he said, adding the two had been “fierce competitors.”
But, Obama said, “Each of us has the responsibility to usher in a new season of cooperation.”
With a nod to McCain’s accomplishments on campaign finance reform, immigration, and the Patients’ Bill of Rights, Obama said the senior senator from Arizona and onetime prisoner of war in Vietnam is motivated by “a pure and deeply felt love of this country that comes from the painful knowledge of what can be life without it….
“John is not known to bite his tongue,” Obama added, “and If I’m screwing up, he’s going to let me know. And that’s how it should be because a presidency is just one branch of a broader government by and for the people.”
NOTE: This is a clear break from the Dick Cheney view of government.
On his last night of freedom – so to speak – Barack Obama on Monday chose to host a dinner for John McCain, the man he defeated last November after a rancorous campaign. Monday night’s forgive-and-forget banquet followed an equally eyebrow-raising dinner last week at the home of George Will, the conservative columnist, whose guests included Bill Kristol, the viscerally anti-Obama neo- conservative.
In the build-up to probably the most feverishly awaited inauguration in history, the president-elect has been assiduously courting conservative enemies. Most supporters of Mr Obama accept the logic of winning over as many Republicans as possible in order to get maximum support behind the emergency bank bail-out and fiscal stimulus that he needs to push through Capitol Hill in his first few weeks.
In contrast to George W. Bush, whose political “boy wonder”, Karl Rove, said the support of 51 per cent of Americans was all they needed to accomplish their agenda, Mr Obama wants to build a bigger tent that enables Americans to transcend partisan differences.
The only people left scratching their heads are the liberals, who thought the incoming president was one of their own. Instead of appealing to the “better angels of our nature”, as Abraham Lincoln did in his inauguration speech in 1865, many want Mr Obama to take the fight to the conservatives, whom they believe got America into a mess.
“Barack Obama has this desire to be widely liked way more than is helpful,” Barney Frank, chairman of the House of Representatives financial services committee and arguably the most influential liberal on Capitol Hill, told the Financial Times. “He should look to Franklin Roosevelt, who said he ‘welcomed their [Republican] hatred’. We have real differences with the Republicans and, like FDR, we should draw the line.”
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.