To Stay Strong Against Any White House, Congress Can’t Be at War With Itself

Civility isn’t just a quaint idea. In the perennial tug-of-war between the White House and Capitol Hill, it’s essential.

On a December evening in 1986, I shared a backroom of the U.S. Capitol with this country’s top legislative leaders. One of them, a wounded World War II serviceman, asked for help with the coffee urn. Totally disabled in his right hand, he used his left to hold the cup. He asked if I would draw the coffee.

That simple pour came during one of those Capitol Hill rituals that rarely, if ever, gets reported. Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. was retiring. On this day, the last night of his ten-year speakership, leaders of both parties were spending some quiet, respectful time with him.

It was just that, men (sadly, no women yet) sitting together honoring O’Neill and with that sendoff, they were tacitly acknowledging their years of service in each other’s company: Jim Wright of Texas, Tom Foley of Washington State, Bob Michel of Illinois, Senators Bobby Byrd of West Virginia, and Bob Dole of Kansas.

I thought of that affectionate evening with these leaders of both parties when I heard about President Biden’s visit with Dole, now 97, earlier this month. The one-time Senate Majority Leader and 1996 GOP presidential nominee still bears his injuries suffered during the American liberation of Italy. Now, he has throat cancer which is why the new president went to see him. They had spent 23 years in the U.S. Senate together.

It struck me as just the kind of event to keep off the president’s public schedule. Why? Because it’s not about the usual public persona. It’s about something more. It’s the human kind that makes all the other possible. It’s the social cement that holds the bricks together. It’s the element in legislative power that has been under assault not just during Trump’s poisonous reign but under Newt Gingrich and others who turned rough politics into blood sport.

What I’m referring to is the personal relationships that come from common service. People who give themselves to a similar quest, a life in electoral politics, find themselves forming bonds. Working on the same issues, inhabiting the same workplace, they become comfortable associates, often more than that. There are lots of reasons, of course, for the decline of comradery in Congress: The decline of parties means more powerful interest groups who push more bellicose candidates in primaries. The ideological separation of the parties—there are basically no more conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans—removes what was once a barrier to conflict in a two-party system. You could fight like hell, but it was harder to savage personally if a sizable minority in your own party were with the other guys on abortion or defense.

There’s still a definite comradery in the Congress, an enjoyment of being in the company of colleagues who, for all of their differences, have much in common. A good example is the annual “gym dinner.” This is the event run by the people who run the House gym. Each year they host a supper in the Longworth cafeteria for House members, past and present.

The menu is top-of-the line diner food: steaks, baked potatoes, a bottle of beer, apple pie for dessert. But it’s not the chow that draws the huge turn-out. It’s the simple chance to sit together at long tables and chat about whatever’s on the next person’s mind. It’s simply about getting together: no speeches, no program, just familiar company. And there’s no division by party, no aisle down the middle among those happy tables.

You’ll never read in the newspapers about the “gym dinner.” Yet it matters. I remember the night the first George Bush, a former House member from Houston back in the 60s, brought Ronald Reagan to one. He knew it was a way the new president could pay proper respect to the Congress, by showing up when there were no cameras, no way to take advantage except with where it was deserved by his coming.

This is the world Newt Gingrich tried to destroy in the 1990s. He decided this goodwill across party lines was killing Republican chances. Like Lenin, he decided his revolution required the politicization of personal life. Having risen to his Speakership attacking any effort to get things done as appeasement, and being the first C-SPAN demagogue, Gingrich’s one innovation was to tell incoming freshmen members to keep their press secretaries back in the district. That way they could keep the new member tied into the hometown news.

His second bit of advice was for new Members to keep their spouses there. That way they could keep involved socially with their political base. And the shift in culture from moving your family to DC when you won made a huge difference. If you were just here for ideological jousting, why bring the family? If you brought the family, you were more likely to see the Beltway as home and not just a rhetorical flourish. You were more likely to do social things with your spouse and folks from work, same as if you were an accountant or a cop.

As for the marriages? Well, they could see them on weekends, or rather in those weekend hours when they weren’t campaigning or raising money.

If Newt’s advice was good politics, it was terrible for Congress. If members were to go home every weekend to see their spouses, they were not going to spend time with other congressional couples. Wives and husbands of members were not going to keep things friendly when the divisions on the House floor grew heated. Without the possibility of weekends together, Washington’s politicians were even less likely to become friends with anyone from the other political party.

It didn’t surprise me that Joe Biden and Bob Dole are friends. In the Congress, I served as Tip O’Neill’s guy for all those years when such friendships were accepted. This is not misplaced nostalgia. It’s what allowed the first branch of government to function. The more we’ve lost of that comradery the less power the legislative body will have in a system where Congress is meant to check the president. The more we get back that life the stronger both chambers will be. Congress has fallen behind the imperial presidency in so many ways and has struggled to come back. It created the Congressional Budget Office to keep pace with the president’s Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Technology Assessment so it wouldn’t get snowed by the White House’s expertise on science. But personal ties are essential if Congress is going to be the first branch of government. It can’t be when character assassination replaces sharp elbows.

So, don’t undercount the human factor. I still feel affection for that evening when Bob Dole showed the strength of the wounded warrior—and showed me the honor—to help him pour his coffee.

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Chris Matthews

Chris Matthew's long career as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist includes a stint with the U.S. Capitol Police. Simon & Schuster is publishing his memoir, This Country: My Life in Politics and History, this spring. He is also the author of 2013’s “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” Both books are published by Simon & Schuster.