Is That All There Is?

| September 2, 2015 | 0 Comments

The words of Peggy Lee’s song are haunting, but they come to mind, not in a philosophical/mystical sense, though they are that, but politically.

I’ve been in politics, around politics for 49 years. Beginning with the lieutenant governor’s office in Sacramento in 1966, through Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign to five years on Capitol Hill in Washington – two U.S. senators, two House members – then home to San Diego, and, as one might assume, have witnessed a lot.

I’ve seen some good things. I’ve seen some bad things.

Actually, when your candidate is assassinated, as Bobby was – 6 June 1968 – that’s as bad and black as it gets. But, if you are a Kennedy person, as I am a Kennedy person, you don’t do, as Ethel Kennedy says, “Wouldofs, couldofs, shouldofs,” you keep going forward – and I have.

The general view people have today, government is broken, politics is ugly, America is in free fall.

The “general view” is generally wrong, but in our time the general view is generally right.

Looking at where we are, it’s difficult to see how we get past our present circumstances, so deep the divide, so divisive the politics.

In my time on Capitol Hill, 1968-73, the divide was over Vietnam and Civil Rights, but the war in Southeast Asia dominated, tearing apart our country in ways unseen since the Civil War.

The two senators I served, Charles Goodell, Republican of New York, and Harold Hughes, Democrat of Iowa, and the two House members, Seymour Halpern, Republican of New York, and Lester Wolff, Democrat of New York, opposed the Vietnam War.

Since Vietnam was my defining moral issue, as I believe it was defining for millions of other Americans, the opposition of the four to the war was ultimately the overriding reason I served in their and the public’s behalf.

Which I note for the purpose of saying, that despite the rage in the USA over the war and the political divisions it caused, I did not sense then on Capitol Hill the anger, loathing and mistrust so characteristic of today.

That while many members and senators hated the war, it wasn’t partisan, all Democrats on one side, Republicans on the other. Both sides hated the war and both sides found common ground in opposition to it. Framed against the backdrop of today, when there is no common ground, the difference for me is dramatic.

The Republican senators in my time for the Senate: Mr. Javits of New York, Mr. Brooke of Massachusetts, Mr. Case of New Jersey, Mr. Saxbe of Ohio, Mr. Cooper and Mr. Cook of Kentucky, Mr. Pearson of Kansas, Mr. Hatfield and Mr. Packwood of Oregon, Mr. Aiken of Vermont, Mr. Schweiker of Pennsylvania, Mr. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut, and, of course, my senator, Mr. Goodell of New York; while generally conservative in their economic policies, they were anything but in their view on issues of social justice (including the two Kentucky senators).

But, quite apart from their politics, every single one of them was decent and civil and acted in behalf of America, not party; as did their Democratic counterparts across the aisle – Mr. Cranston and Mr. Tunney of California, Mr. Humphrey, Mr. McCarthy, and Mr. Mondale of Minnesota, Mr. Hart of Michigan, Mr. Douglas of Illinois, Mr. Ribicoff of Connecticut, etc.

One needn’t be a student of the Senate to know that is not the case today. Practicing civility and finding common ground is essentially missing. In consequence, the nation suffers greatly.

It is sometimes helpful, however, to take a longer look at our history, to ask if this period through which we are passing, has precedence?

The Baffler is a quarterly magazine published out of Boston; it carries the tag line of, “The journal that blunts the cutting edge.”

That’s the magazine’s claim, and, as claims go, it’s claimable.

In publication No. 25, there’s an article by Chris Bray, entitled, “Tip and Gip Sip and Quip: The politics of never,” essentially a takedown of Chris Matthews’s book on president Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neil – “Tip and The Gipper: When Politics Worked” (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

Here’s one of the article’s opening paragraphs, just to give you a feel for Mr. Bray’s writing style:

“Chris Matthews is so heroically gifted at pumping out raw bilge that you would think the rest of the D.C. press corps could just retire and let the one roaring apparatus fill up all the cable TV shows and all the op-ed pages and all the clickbaitable lists on all the politics websites you look at every day but wish you didn’t. Identify the most obvious political idea in any given context, and then imagine the most obvious image you could use to illustra – nope, too late, Chris Matthews already got there.”

But, the more critical point, for purposes here, is this:

“Joanne Freeman, a history professor at Yale, has written the best book of the last twenty years about the political elites of the early American republic. It’s about the ways they managed their hate and rage, the ways that they got through their days without too badly losing control of the feelings of disgust they had for one another. The rules were distinctly personal in this ‘maelstrom of discontent,’ but they weren’t rules about being nice: they were rules about not getting shot. With their behavior regulated by the real possibility of violence, national political figures were expected to channel their interpersonal loathing down a few narrow paths; the code of honor meant that men could go only so far before they risked physical peril.

“’On the unstructured national political stage,” “Freeman writes”, ‘this code assumed great importance, for politicking was about conflict and competition above all else. Whether they were debating legislation or campaigning for election, politicians were competing for limited rewards. This was no great surprise to the first national officeholders. What did surprise them was the intensity of the political game. Regional distrust, personal animosity, accusation, suspicion, implication, and denouncement – this was the tenor of national politics from the outset.”’

Mr. Bray then goes on to write:

“In 1800, with a presidential election approaching, John Adams exploded in disgust at the poor character of Alexander Hamilton, the ‘bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar’ and an ‘insolent coxcomb.’ Oh, and ‘the greatest intriguant in the world – a man devoid of every moral principle.’”

Thus, one might conclude, that the politics of the Founders were driven, in part, by a desire not to be shot by members of the party opposite.

Since that no longer appears likely – possible, but not likely – pray tell what reason is given for such abysmal politics as we witnessed today?

There are many reasons why so many things have gone to hell, but if we are going to assess blame, openly and with integrity, I suggest we begin by looking in the mirror.

Because what’s happened in Washington, what’s happened to the Republican Party, and, to a lesser extent, the Democrats, is more our blame than theirs – because, ladies and gentlemen, we have allowed it to happen. We have cursed the darkness without lighting candles.

Ultimately, in a democracy, The People Govern, and as bad as the politicians have screwed it up, we, by our indifference and indolence, have done nothing.

Want to save America?

Then get off your asses and do something!


George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader. He may be reached at,

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