One of the first things you notice when you move to Washington DC from the rest of America is how the specialized vocabulary of the Beltway dominates everyday conversation.
I’d add to this list two of my own. First, the Senate convention of referring to your ideological enemies in the other party as “My good friend.” In a few cases it is authentic, but most of the time it is a lie. (Does anyone believe that anyone—in either party—actually considers Harry Reid to be “friend” material?)
For the record, being polite to your fellow Senators while making floor speeches is required by the Senate rules on debate:
No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.
The practice of using flowery, elevated language while in the act of doing the public’s business has its advantages. When attempting to use the force of the state to do things to other people, there will be controversy. And people, generally, are animals, even the hot house Ivy Leaguers and precious, patrician dilettantes that comprise most of our current political class. Anything that tones down the emotion and keeps everyone focused on factual argument, like forced rhetorical respect for one’s opponents, is a good idea.
What happens when you ignore this rule? The beating of Sen. Charles Sumner by Rep. Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate chamber in 1856 serves as an example. I have to think that even being forced to pretend his fellow Senators were his friends and worthy of respect might have defused this situation to some degree:
The inspiration for this clash came three days earlier when Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts antislavery Republican, addressed the Senate on the explosive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. In his "Crime Against Kansas" speech, Sumner identified two Democratic senators as the principal culprits in this crime—Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. He characterized Douglas to his face as a "noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator." Andrew Butler, who was not present, received more elaborate treatment. Mocking the South Carolina senator's stance as a man of chivalry, the Massachusetts senator charged him with taking "a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean," added Sumner, "the harlot, Slavery."
Representative Preston Brooks was Butler's South Carolina kinsman. If he had believed Sumner to be a gentleman, he might have challenged him to a duel. Instead, he chose a light cane of the type used to discipline unruly dogs. Shortly after the Senate had adjourned for the day, Brooks entered the old chamber, where he found Sumner busily attaching his postal frank to copies of his "Crime Against Kansas" speech.
Moving quickly, Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner's head. As Brooks struck again and again, Sumner rose and lurched blindly about the chamber, futilely attempting to protect himself. After a very long minute, it ended.
Bleeding profusely, Sumner was carried away. Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber without being detained by the stunned onlookers. Overnight, both men became heroes in their respective regions.
More problematic than the civilized rules of debate is the unofficial affection and camaraderie overtly displayed by elected officials of wildly divergent philosophical beliefs. 'Yes, I believe him to be dishonest, manipulative, naïve and that he’s unalterably ruining this country, but … there’s just something about his smile.'
Recently on CSPAN, Brian Lamb interviewed Sen. Tom Coburn and nearly the entire hour becomes Lamb’s repeated attempt to understand this exasperating Washington insider’s club mentality. Coburn is as close to the ideal for a modern politician as a for which a conservative could hope. But, his dissembling, evasive answers to very direct, simple question indicate the Washington mindset may be too much to overcome for anyone who’s been there for a prolonged period.
This clip is classic Brian Lamb, where upon being told that liberal Democrat politicians are “great people” and then that they’re also lazy, corrupt, ruinous scoundrels, and not getting a straight answer as to how that can be, he curtly asks Coburn to define what he thinks “great” is.
It’s an illuminating response. Coburn believes liberal democrats have their hearts in the right place, and would vote the right way if they could, but they just don’t know any better because of their lack of experience in the real world. They’re good-hearted, great people, but they are naïve.
As Michael Corleone once said to his girlfriend after being called naïve and being told that Senators and Presidents don’t have men killed, “who’s being naïve, Kay?”
It’s unquestionably true that Democrat politicians increasingly come from an isolated, protected, world where they don’t have to live with the consequences of their actions. But to think that following their good hearts just accidently leads them into advocating increasingly socialistic economic policies and social justice schemes is absurd.
Here’s another attempt by Lamb to get to the essence of the truth in this matter. After Coburn says that most people in Washington routinely lie to the American public, Lamb asks “why?”. After giving a defensive, Star Trek-like “I’m a Senator, not a sociologist Jim!” preamble, Coburn lands on the cultural movement away from faith and religion:
The most insightful part of that is not Coburn’s response, but Lamb’s highlighting of the inconsistency between a claimed movement away from religion and nearly every politician in Washington wrapping themselves in the garments of overt religiosity.
Speaking of which, one more clip. Here’s Barack Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast, talking about his “love” for his “good friend” and his “great friend’ Sen. Tom Coburn.
According to Coburn, the main problem with President Obama, in particular regarding his untruths in selling Obamacare, is that he was “poorly advised”. Lord help us.
If that’s what the Republican leadership truly believes, that liberal Democrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton do what they do because they are merely naïve to the real world and are poorly advised, then they have unilaterally disarmed themselves, tactically and intellectually speaking. And we should expect nothing but a continued string of legislative failure by them to come.
Circling back to the question of why egocentric politicians in Washington are desperate to be seen as being “friends” with each other, I’m left with a much more obvious explanation. Ego. It’s gratifying, and self-aggrandizing, to claim to be friends with powerful people. The President of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representative, or the celebrity Senator from New York are the ultimate in trophy friends, no matter what destructive scoundrels they may be in real life. Plus cross ideological friendship sets you apart from the petty, common motivations of lesser people. Congress may be a dysfunctional, gridlocked institution, full of bickering partisans, but I rise above that and have good friends across the aisle (cue choreographed applause from hand picked supporters at televised campaign rally).
Say what you will about Senators getting beaten bloody with a silver tipped cane on the floor of the Senate, at least it spared the voters from this flood of mawkish sentimentality.