Time for some friendly compromise

Published 1:19 pm Thursday, May 19, 2011

“Let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11.” Using his triumphal announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed, President Obama tried once again to call the nation to a sense of common purpose. The next night, with the jubilant shouts of the crowd outside the White House still echoing through its halls, the president rallied the bipartisan congressional leadership: “We were reminded again that there is a pride in what this nation stands for and what we can achieve that runs far deeper than party, far deeper than politics.”

That shared pride has been missing from our politics for years — the sense of family born out of horror almost forgotten. In a mastery of understatement, the president observed: “That unity that we felt on 9/11 has frayed a little bit over the years,” adding, “I have no illusions about the difficulties and the debates that we’ll have to be engaged in, in the weeks and months to come.” But still he urged his congressional guests to seize this moment to work together as Washington tackles the deficit and debt, education and immigration.

We’ve written a great deal about how partisanship is pulling the country apart, and the events of this week have again underlined that point. The dramatic mission to get bin Laden met with almost universal approval. In a Gallup Poll taken the next day, fully 93 percent of the public agreed it was the right thing to do and 94 percent deemed the action “important.” When did we last see numbers like that? On almost every critical issue now facing the nation voters are sharply divided.

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That hasn’t always been true, and another event this week — one of pomp and pageantry rather than daring and danger — reminded us of that. A ceremony unveiling the statue of our 38th president, Gerald R. Ford, brought the congressional leadership plus many old-timers to the Capitol Rotunda, where they reminisced about the way things used to be.

The speakers commented on the fact that Ford, though his party’s leader in the House of Representatives, was seldom a staunch partisan. They quoted him saying that he had “adversaries, not enemies.” That’s something we can personally attest to — Ford was House minority leader when Cokie’s dad, Hale Boggs, was majority leader, and the two were the best of friends.

That doesn’t mean they always agreed on issues, of course not. They engaged in vigorous debate, but then they could sit down for a drink and a laugh. And they knew in the end the House would come to a compromise they could live with. “I believe in friendly compromise,” Ford told his colleagues. “Compromise is the oil that makes governments go.”

But once Gerald Ford became the accidental president following Richard Nixon’s resignation in disgrace, one key question defied compromise: how to handle Nixon’s crimes. Ignoring public opinion, Ford chose to pardon the former president in the hopes of putting the “national nightmare” of the Watergate scandal to rest.

That decision probably cost him the presidency, but Ford spared the country what might have been years of Nixon trials and appeals roiling up partisans when big issues — war, the economy — needed serious attention. Years later, in awarding the Profiles in Courage prize, Sen. Ted Kennedy admitted that he had opposed the pardon but “now we see that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing.”

Ford wanted to stop arguing and start governing. He believed failure to compromise was not only counterproductive but as a veteran of World War II, he also thought it was dangerous: “I come by my political pragmatism the hard way,” he once wrote. “My generation paid a very heavy price in resistance to extremists and dictators.”

Since Sept. 11, another generation has paid a high price in that resistance. Now the extremist who was the very face of the terrorism America’s young men and women have been fighting for almost 10 years is gone. His demise has brought us back together, remembering that he attacked us all. The bravery of the military sharpshooters who went in to destroy bin Laden and the brains of the intelligence professionals who located him made us all proud.

“It is my fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the many challenges that we still face,” Obama beseeched his congressional guests. It’s ours as well.

(Steve and Cokie’s new book, “Our Haggadah” (HarperCollins), was published this spring. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.)