The Honorable William S. Cohen and Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) had a conversation at the Collins Center for the Arts on November 7. Bill Cohen followed Maine’s tradition of political moderation by not saying anything particularly interesting or original. Wyoming’s former senator was a lot more interesting.
For one thing his feet are phenomenal. Never seen the like. They were up on the stage at eye level directly in front of me. Prodigious fifteen and half, triple-H shoes—couldn’t take my eyes off them. I only mention this because the journalistic convention has long been to remark on his towering height and sharp wit. This is accurate on both counts. When he spoke to me he had the aspect of a man looking at something down a well, and he fetched some well-deserved laughs during his talk. All the same there are other tall senators and a few can be quite funny, but none among them have, or ever had, feet the size of coal barges. This seemed worth mentioning.
The title of the 2013 Cohen Lecture was “The State of Our Nation: Hardball vs. Civility” but Alan Simpson seemed more inclined to mixing hardball AND civility. When I explained to him how I saw myself as a beacon of benevolence spreading good will everywhere he replied that he, in contrast, enjoyed “p***ing people off.” And during his talk he suggested that members of his audience call Mike Michaud a “lying son of a bitch.”
He was not explicit in this but the implication was clear. Senator Simpson told his thousand listeners that “…when you hear that wonderful phrase from your elected official standing there in the beauty of the glare of the camera: ‘I know what the problem is and we can get it done without touching precious Medicare, precious Medicaid, precious Defense, or precious Social Security. Then, you should get up and say, ‘You, sir, are making a terminological inexactitude, you lying son of a bitch.’
Rep. Michaud is on record saying that he had “authored” a constitutional amendment to preserve Social Security in its present state for all eternity. I’m sure he wasn’t lying when he says he authored a constitutional amendment. Anyone can author a constitutional amendment. Take a pencil and a piece of paper and the job is done in seconds, minutes at the most. The terminological inexactitude lies in the reassurance that there’s no need to change anything ever as long as we don’t want change.
I deduce this: that the Wyominger does not believe that tact should replace fact or civility swallow truth. Some disagreements arise from conflicting theories or experiences; others result from a collision of sincerity and mendacity. I suppose a good rule of thumb is this: we are free to call a man a lying SOB when he knows he’s lying, but if he’s merely wrong we are not allowed to call him a damn fool.
Civility, all by itself, is no panacea. In some cases, as we have seen, it’s not even desirable. So what other solutions are available? Cohen and Simpson agreed that Americans should demand that elected officials work together to make the hard choices needed to avoid burdening the young and still unborn with an unsustainable burden of debt. Sounds good in the abstract but there a number of practical problems.
The conversationalists agreed with Sen. Olympia Snowe’s Fighting for Common Ground that the expense of getting elected seriously distorts the political process. Senator Simpson told us that “dialing for dollars” can take whole days out of a congressman’s week. He cited the man who spent a hundred million dollars on Romney’s behalf last year as an exemplary scandal.
They agreed that the partisan divide in Washington is not a purely local phenomenon. It is driven largely by the ideological divisions in the electorate. That is, a conservative minority enforces conformity on the Republican congressmen and a liberal minority does the same to Democratic congressman. The problem is exacerbated by the gerrymandering that groups voters in congressional districts along ideological lines.
The Wyoming Big Foot stressed personal integrity as vital to resolving differences and crafting compromises. This seems self-evident. Bad faith makes negotiation impossible.
The 2013 Cohen Lecture was enjoyable in parts, thanks to Alan Simpson’s wit and feet, and it was interesting. I’m glad I attended. But it offered no solutions to anything. It was a diagnosis, not a prescription.
How would this elusive entity called the “American People” go about demanding “that elected officials work together to make the hard choices” if conservative and liberal voters have hard choices in mind which collide with each other? Isolate the ideological voters from the process and you eliminate a majority of the voters who actually pay attention to politics. If Americans really want to curb the influence of Big Money then all they have to do is give up one cup of coffee a week and donate the money to the political party of their choice. The money generated would far exceed the special interest cash now supporting candidates. Not going to happen. They’ll go on drinking their coffee.
Simpson pointed out two obstacles to making those “hard choices.” First, he explained why President Obama rejected the plan proposed by his own National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (a.k.a., the Simpson-Bowles Plan)—its hard choices were too hard. Second, he made it clear that the American people had approved of the vast increases in unaffordable entitlement programs financed through endless borrowing.
Here’s something the two senators neglected to mention: the automatic increases built into our national debt which they deplored were built in back in the good old days when they served in a Congress where civility and good fellowship prevailed.
Professor John Frary of Farmington, Maine is a former US Congress candidate and retired history professor, a Board Member of Maine Taxpayers United and publisher of www.fraryhomecompanion.com and can be reached at: jfrary8070