It wasn’t really Harry Truman who said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” And if he had, he would have been wrong. Though the nation’s capital has no shortage of egos, misanthropes, and bores — inside and outside the corridors of power — it has its share of engaging personalities as well. If you can’t enjoy common ground with at least a few, you’re probably not trying very hard.
Senator Daniel Inouye, a Democrat who passed away last week after representing Hawaii in Congress for over 50 years, counted more friends than most. In one of his last public appearances, he spoke a month ago at a memorial service for New Hampshire GOP Senator Warren Rudman. Their friendship was unusual, given the geography and ideology that separated the two. Yet it was emblematic of the personal bonds that used to be quite common and strong among US senators.
For all of the formality attached to Senate procedure, the floor itself remains a hub for personal interaction. During any given vote the chamber is filled with senators milling about, chatting, and getting business done. Every request imaginable, from co-sponsoring legislation to attending the weekly prayer breakfast is made in full view — if not earshot — of the public galleries.
Inouye’s legendary relationship with Alaska Republican Ted Stevens was like family; both served in the Second World War, led their states into the union, entered Congress with a few years of one another, and spent a career on the Appropriations Committee. In contrast, Inouye’s friendship with Rudman solidified during a tough professional assignment: leading the Senate Iran-Contra hearings 25 years ago.
Inouye and Rudman were perfectly matched — principled, but not especially partisan, and respected on both sides of the aisle. Given the national security implications of the hearings, they had to share full confidence in one another, and the bond that formed never faded. One of the few personal photos Inouye kept in his office was a snapshot of Rudman’s dog — a fact Rudman always relished.
Today, the lament that such personal relationships are part of a bygone era has become so common as to be trite. Members of Congress no longer possess the time once allotted to purely social interaction with colleagues. Fundraising consumes a large part of that time, usually in the guise of lunches or evening receptions with an obvious partisan bent. Adding to that, partisan caucus lunches are held three days during a typical week in the Senate.
For years the Styles Bridges Room, just opposite the Senate Dining Room, served as a bipartisan lunchroom for senators only — no staff or guests allowed. It was a shelter from external partisan pressures and demands on senators’ personal time. Over time, however, the regular caucus lunches meant that fewer and fewer senators stopped by for the casual sandwich and easy conversation upon which real relationships could grow.
Today, lunch is no longer served in the Bridges Room, and opportunities to get to know colleagues are rarer than ever. The Senate is worse for it. Friends trust one another; friends negotiate in good faith; friends can commit to a deal with a handshake.
Inouye sealed just such an agreement with me in 2007. Surrounded by a few staff and one or two other senators, we set the terms of a ban on Internet taxes. With the framework outlined on a sheet of paper, he quietly issued an edict to his team: “Get it done.” Less than a day later, he waved off a Democrat’s attempt to weaken one provision. “That’s not what we agreed to,” he scolded his aides, and the bargain held.
That kind of integrity forges friendships and inspires loyalty — a sentiment Inouye and Rudman cherished deeply and were known for throughout their lives. Watching the honor guard carry Senator Inouye’s flag-draped coffin beneath the Capitol Rotunda last week, it was impossible not to reflect on the military career that took his arm and earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Like Rudman, Inouye rarely spoke about his own wartime service, but it was a source of great pride. “It was,” he observed at Rudman’s memorial, “one of the things we valued very much — we were both infantry.”
It’s difficult to imagine two people who better exemplified a patriotic love of country and the ideal of bipartisan friendship. Truman’s mythical line notwithstanding, they could count plenty of friends in Washington — the real kind — and they will be missed.