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Star-spangled blather

Half a century covering capital ends in dispiriting realization

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Kaiser calls former House Speaker Newt Gingrich “the most effective and most destructive political figure I encountered in five decades.”

“Do you miss Washington yet?”

A friend asked me this on the phone the other day, and – like a longtime Washingtonian – I avoided a full and frank reply. “Not yet,” I said.

It’s an odd sensation, leaving the town I’d lived in for most of my 70 years, ending my 50-year career at the Washington Post, turning my back on the political circus that enthralled me for so long.

But a more honest answer would have been this: I don’t miss Washington, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Why? Because for me, the fun has drained out of the game. So has the substance. I used to get excited about the big issues we covered – civil rights, women’s liberation, the fate of the country’s great cities, the end of the Cold War. I loved the politicians who brought those issues to life, from Everett McKinley Dirksen and Howard Baker (Dirksen’s son-in-law, curiously) to Russell B. Long and Edmund Muskie, from Bob Dole to George Mitchell – all people who knew and cared a great deal about governing.

Watching them at work was exhilarating. Watching their successors, today’s senators and representatives, is just depressing.

Fearsome realization

I realized just how depressing last October, when Congress voted on legislation that would raise the debt ceiling – allowing the Treasury to pay the debts Congress had already incurred – and keep the government open. This was exciting, but perversely so. On Oct. 16, 162 members of Congress, 144 in the House and 18 in the Senate, voted “no,” votes meant explicitly to drive their government into bankruptcy, when there was a real chance that their view might prevail. Here was an entirely new style of public service, and it turned my stomach.

Those 162 votes reflected the deep hostility felt by the newest version of Republican lawmakers toward the government of their country. It is a cynical and often uninformed hostility befitting the age we live in.

And it has many adherents in a country with an elaborate regulatory and welfare state that many like to pretend we don’t really have, don’t really need and don’t really like – three blatant falsehoods.

Lies and intellectual inventions are now typical of our public life, which made Washington difficult for me. Of course, a politician lying is hardly a shock, but there is a difference between telling untruths (see Nixon, Richard M.) and making stuff up. I liked Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dictum: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

That seems so old-fashioned now, when global-warming deniers hold forth on the floors of the House and the Senate, and numerous Republicans merrily denounce our moderate president as a “Socialistic dictator,” in the recent words of Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas.

I haven’t met Weber, but I have met some of the other House Republicans whose intellectual output can be equally baffling.

One of my frustrations in recent years has been the journalistic conventions that can make it difficult to speak or write in a straightforward way about people such as Weber who make preposterous statements – and act as though they believe them. What is the appropriate journalistic response to Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., when he announces that evolution and the Big Bang theory are all “lies straight from the pit of hell”?

Not that Democrats are all clever and insightful; far from it.

The intellectual firepower in Congress declined sharply during my years in Washington.

Lawmakers who read books, have their own ideas, care about policy issues and believe in government have become rarer than Redskins victories.

Where once we had Sen. Philip Hart, D-Mich., and Rep. Richard Bolling, D-Mo., for example, now we have Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. Did you listen to Baucus testify about China, where he is soon to be our ambassador? (“I am no real expert on China.”) Have you heard Jackson Lee hold forth, for example, on Vietnam? (“Today we have two Vietnams, side by side, North and South ... living in peace.”) Not inspiring.

Hard right turn

But the most consequential political development in my time has been the transformation of the Grand Old Party.

When I was young, we had Republicans who liked to govern, resisted political orthodoxy, made strong friendships with Democrats and took principled positions on difficult issues. We have forgotten that Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights bills, perhaps the most important legislation passed in my decades in Washington, were possible only because of Senate Republicans such as Dirksen of Illinois, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania and Jacob Javits of New York. The idea that Javits and Barry Goldwater were both Republicans in the same Senate is, by today’s standards, astounding.

Now the anti-government right wing dominates the GOP.

Vigilantes from the Club for Growth and Heritage Action campaign to eliminate every Republican in Congress who toys with moderation or considers collaborating with Democrats. The vigilantes’ key allies are members of “the base,” the party activists who make up perhaps 10 percent to 15 percent of the country’s population but can control the Republican nominating process. The base consists principally of white evangelical Christians who, the pollsters tell us, fear that their America is disappearing.

Of course they are right; it has probably disappeared already. Their America would not have elected a black president.

The Democratic Party has also changed profoundly. It lost its white Southerners, who are now all Republicans, and lost its conservative wing. The modern Democrats are a more liberal alliance of, mostly, interest groups: women, trade unionists, gay men and lesbians, blacks, Hispanics and most of the country’s intellectuals. Balancing the interests of all of them has been challenging and at times has left the Democrats electorally vulnerable.

I just called them “liberal,” a word Democrats from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Hubert Humphrey invoked with pride. But today’s Democrats have been avoiding that word, a sign of the fundamental insecurity that has crippled them.

I think Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich deserve most of the credit for spooking them.

Reagan’s 1980 landslide victory surprised the Democrats in Congress and left them confused about what they believed. Once they had genuine leaders – Humphrey was one, Robert F. Kennedy another – who could forcefully articulate a liberal platform with broad appeal, but those leaders had no successors.

When Reagan announced, in his first inaugural address, that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” Democrats seemed helpless to reply. Instead they caved. In 1981, Democrats provided the votes in both the House and the Senate that enacted Reagan’s tax and spending cuts, as well as his defense buildup.

That same year, Democrats in the House elected a new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Tony Coelho of California. It was a fateful choice.

Coelho was remarkably good at the job. His colleagues saw him as a lifeline who would help them raise enough money to retain their House majority despite Reagan’s popularity. And he succeeded.

Coelho convinced his fellow Democrats that in this new era, they had to raise money from business interests – just like Republicans.

He set up new ways for those interests to make their wishes known to House Democrats. Democrats listened, took the money and retained big majorities. All it cost them was their soul.

Pivotal decade

The 1980s changed America. These were the years when corporations and wealthy individuals organized to fight back against the liberal forces that had dominated the ’60s and ’70s. Moneyed interests organized new groups, especially political action committees that were prepared to spend large sums to achieve their political objectives.

This began the three-decade process that has made money the most important element of our public life, a form of pollution way beyond the reach of the Environmental Protection Agency.

As money became more and more important to congressional candidates, Democrats, especially in the House, became less and less effective in their historic role as the allies and defenders of the little guy. Their electoral successes every two years dulled their competitive skills.

They had little to offer by way of new policies or ideas. They became smug, self-satisfied, too willing to engage in the petty corruptions that four decades in control made so easy. Instead of defending the little guy, Democrats helped themselves.

Gingrich understood the opportunity those ’80s Democrats had created for Republicans.

Gingrich was the most effective and most destructive political figure I encountered in five decades covering Washington. He invented the partisan warfare that has produced today’s gridlock. He encouraged the disregard for facts that has defiled our public life. He believed, fiercely, that the end justified the means. The end he sought was a Republican House, and he had no qualms about how it was achieved or maintained. He and his successor as lead enforcer, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, helped destroy collegiality in Washington.

Widespread distrust

I won’t rail against the wind. I understand that, beginning with the passage of Proposition 13 in California in 1978, a tax revolt spread across the land. Americans who once trusted their government now distrusted it, profoundly. This was not irrational.

The appalling war in Vietnam, the venality of Watergate, the now-forgotten but then-terrifying Great Inflation of the late 1970s – these huge events altered the relationship between citizens and their government.

Americans began to realize that their standard of living, which grew so dramatically for nearly three decades after World War II, had stopped improving. The government wasn’t much use, and a new kind of Republican politician sought their votes on an anti-government platform, won power and ushered in a new era.

Washington became more of a winner-take-all community. But the percentage of winners in the capital seemed higher than in the rest of the country.

One example of the winnings: Edward Bennett Williams, the most famous Washington lawyer in the 1970s and ’80s, paid himself an annual salary of $200,000 in 1971 and $1.7 million in 1985.

Suddenly, the sleepy Southern town of my youth was bubbling with money. A technology boom in Virginia, a biotech boom in Maryland, an extraordinary increase in government contracting throughout the region fueled by the Reagan administration’s privatization of a large part of the government – all this made Washington a new kind of Fat City.

Nearly everyone wanted a piece of the new action, so appointed officials, former members of Congress, and staffers from agencies and the Hill rushed to convert their public service into private gain – as lobbyists. This urge to cash in has no party loyalty; both Democrats and Republicans are infected.

There’s no denying that the money made Washington more fun – for those who could afford it. In the past 20 years my hometown became a real city.

Young people flocked here. Apartment houses sprung up along Massachusetts Avenue and then, amazingly, along 14th Street, which I can still remember ablaze in the riots of April 1968.

The city’s cultural institutions boomed, even as my Washington Post shrunk. Major league baseball returned, the icing on a rich cake. I will miss all of this now that I have moved away.

Post-9/11 D.C.

But in other respects, Washington has made it easier to leave. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the town has become obsessed with security.

The barriers and security checks everywhere felt more like the Moscow where I lived 40 years ago as a foreign correspondent than my hometown. The Capitol, my favorite Washington haunt, became all but inaccessible to citizens who weren’t part of a formal tour group. The symbolism of that change seemed powerful.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 provided an intriguing jolt to the culture of political Washington, but surprisingly quickly, his arrival confirmed how dysfunctional that culture had become.

The election of 2010 made things worse, empowering the anti-government faction represented by the tea party. After 2010, and despite Obama’s re-election, Washington was victimized by the politics of lying, hating and avoiding the country’s huge problems. That’s when I began to realize that it might be time for me to leave.

I’m sure my age is a factor here.

A man of 70 cannot sustain the excitement and optimism of youth. Still, all my instincts tell me that the dreadful politics of today cannot last indefinitely.

Politicians who care more about partisan advantage than about keeping the country strong and vibrant are, I hope and believe, profoundly un-American.

The hardest thing to predict is discontinuity – a break from the patterns of today. But I think America is in for discontinuity.

Something is going to happen to change this awful game we are playing. I will be reading the work of the wonderful crop of young journalists in Washington who I expect to keep me abreast of developments, as I tried to do when I was young and full of enthusiasm.

But I will be reading them from New York, where I am already looking for a new story to report on.

I will miss my hometown, the neighborhoods I grew up in, the shortcuts and native’s tricks that I mastered over many years.

I will miss the city’s majestic public spaces and an army of personal friends. And I will miss the Nats, the best thing to happen to Washington in years. So I’ll be in the stands at Citi Field in Queens on March 31, Opening Day, to watch them beat the New York Mets.

Robert G. Kaiser, a native Washingtonian, joined the Washington Post as a summer intern in 1963. After working as a local reporter, a foreign correspondent, an editor and, from 1991 to 1998, the paper’s managing editor, he retired in February.

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