Last week, the “Charlie Rose” show featured eminent historians who have studied American presidents. They talked about past presidents and bemoaned the rigid posture of social ostracism both parties now practice against each other. Members of Congress used to have lunch together, play golf together, and forge friendships across the aisle. They developed good will and mutual understanding. Today, they don’t fraternize. As though they are enemies, not fellow-Americans, they deal with each other in mutual distrust.
Robert Caro talked about Lyndon Johnson, and how he used to invite 20 members of Congress to dinner every week. They brought their wives, and Lady Bird Johnson took them on a tour of the White House before dinner. By the end of each term, Johnson knew every member of Congress and members of Congress knew each other. In innumerable ways, the filaments of friendships generated in those dinners helped them work together.
What would happen if President Obama did something like that?
Obama did play golf last year with House Speaker John Boehner in an effort to ease tensions, but partisans on both sides seam to fear and forbid informal socializing across party lines. The taboo reminds me of the bad old days of apartheid in South Africa, where I was born. Conversations between whites and blacks were either taboo or hard to create. One was master, the other servant or enemy.
In South Africa, for years before Mandela was released from prison, apartheid opponents created opportunities for conversation in churches, business, sports, choruses, and political groups. They launched a million-signature campaign and taught canvassers to foster conversations. “It is more important to win a friend than to get a vote,” they said. Those conversations changed the climate of South Africa’s political life. They enabled Mandela’s release.
They talked about fly-fishing and opera. When they were human again, they could talk about peace.
To prepare for his release, apartheid opponents met at home and abroad, had dinner together and had conversations. The day after his release, Mandela described what had happened. A new conversation could replace “the old conversation of master and servant.”
What would happen if Obama invited members of Congress to a baseball game? Would the party leaders forbid them to accept the president’s invitation?
I hope he would copy a tactic George Mitchell developed for the Irish during the Good Friday peace accords. Mitchell recognized that the negotiators were saying again what they had said before. They were stuck. He could not reach them with words, so he tried something to change their physical point of view and their mental perspectives. He invited both sides to dinner and an opera in London and forbade talk about politics. Paul Dixon, an expert on the negotiations, says they were to see each other “as humans — as people with grandchildren, with hobbies.” They talked about fly-fishing and opera. When they were human again, they could talk about peace.
Catching a Washington Nationals game with the president, legislators on both sides could relish or deplore the team’s standing and its need for a new starting pitcher. When they are human again, they can talk about policy.
Obama knows how to do these things. In 2009, after Cambridge Police Sergeant James M. Crowley arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Obama invited them to the White House in an effort to tamp down the flare-up of racial hatred that the incident ignited. Small conversations, no politics. Could he do something like that again to rebuild the comity that once allowed Congress to do the business of the nation?