, Salem, MA


January 4, 2014

Shribman: Scrub the windows of our politics


Embedded in that one paragraph are several great truths. The Senate, which describes itself as the world’s greatest deliberative body, is no such thing. Politicians’ views are shaped for, and shaped by, special-interest groups. Ideological rigidity and foolish consistency — more proof that Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in the wrong century — are celebrated rather than deplored.

So maybe what America needs is a little less consistency from its politicians. This is probably not an attractive view for a columnist to promulgate, but it may provide a fresh breeze in that cave of wind on Capitol Hill.

What is meant by less consistency?

Start with the notion of making congressional debates, and White House negotiations, actual debates and negotiations. Maybe the presence of so many lawyers, and the lure of the closing argument, has warped our politics. But if politicians viewed their scripted talking points only as opening arguments rather than as the last word, if they listened to the views of their rivals, and if they then evaluated their own views against their opponents’, they might actually find a middle ground, or scoot out of their corner into another corner, or at least have respect for views that clash with theirs, and for the men and women who express them.

Nearly a half century ago, Richard Nixon hired professor Jeffrey Hart as a speechwriter, telling him, as Hart, an expert in English poetry, liked to say, to add a spot of Tennyson to Nixon’s remarks. Here’s a spot of Tennyson that might jolt our convictions about conviction: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”

Anyone who took public speaking in college knows that the principal purpose of speechifying is persuasion. Yet, our politicians believe that the speech (and the negotiation, or the House-Senate conference committee) is less for persuasion than for exposition. Let’s consider celebrating the politician who changes his or her mind — not for mean advantage but for principle.

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