Cokie and Steve Roberts: A salute to good will
“Peace on earth, good will toward men.” That sentiment, so noble and hopeful, rings particularly hollow in Washington this holiday season. Just look at the last few weeks.
House Republican hard-liners torpedoed efforts by their own leader, Speaker John Boehner, to pass an extremely modest revenue bill raising taxes on millionaires. The Heritage Foundation condemned the measure by saying it would “constitute a clear path toward surrender on conservative principles.”
What principles are those, exactly? Political paralysis? Chaotic markets? Looming recession? Retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut called the failure of Congress to deal with the fiscal crisis “the most colossal ... act of congressional irresponsibility in a long time,” and that’s probably an understatement.
Then there is Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, who responded to the bloodshed in Newtown, Conn., by condemning even the smallest attempt to control high-powered, military-style weapons as a devious scheme “built on lies” to “destroy the Second Amendment.”
Apparently the spirit of the season has eluded him as well. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote in The New York Times that “no Stephen Colbert parody of conservatism could match” LaPierre’s histrionic rejection of reasonableness.
But those were not the low points. The most egregious example of distrust and downright craziness came early in December when the Senate defeated the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. This is an international treaty based mainly on the Americans With Disabilities Act that was signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. The treaty was negotiated by his son, George the Younger, in 2006 and has been ratified by 126 countries.
The treaty also had the strong support of Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Bob Dole, both severely wounded combat veterans and Republican nominees for president. Dole felt so passionately that he was pushed onto the Senate floor in a wheelchair to witness the debate. That means every living person who ever ran for president on the GOP ticket (we couldn’t find Mitt Romney’s position) endorsed the treaty. Yet only eight GOP senators voted yes, and it lost by five votes.
The arguments against the treaty were stunning in their deceit and ignorance. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said it would empower “overzealous international organizations with anti-American biases that infringe upon American society.” Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said religious parents were worried that “a foreign body based in Geneva, Switzerland, (would) be deciding what is best for a child at home in Utah.” Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania implied that under the treaty, U.N. officials could decide to euthanize disabled children.
The message: Don’t listen to McCain or Dole or the Bushes. The treaty was “built on lies.” Raising taxes, controlling guns, ratifying treaties — they’re all a sinister plot to “surrender conservative principles.” Good will? Bah, humbug!
A few weeks after the treaty was defeated, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii died at age 88. Bob Dole was again wheeled into the Capitol, but he insisted that he walk — with considerable help — to Inouye’s coffin that was lying in state. “I don’t want Danny to see me in a wheelchair,” he explained, wiping away tears.
Then he saluted with his left arm, his only good arm. His right one was shattered by a German machine gun in Italy, in April of 1945. In that same month, in that same country, Inouye lost his right arm after it was mutilated by a German grenade. They met in a military hospital (now named for them) as they recovered from their wounds and formed a lifelong friendship that crossed partisan lines and loyalties.
Perhaps there is a lesson here. Dole and Inouye first served their country as soldiers, not politicians. Their first allegiance was to the nation, not to a party. They bled and almost died for their fellow infantrymen, not their fellow officeholders. And that indelible experience helped shape their approach to politics.
That generation is almost gone now. George H.W. Bush, now ailing himself, was the last World War II veteran to serve as president. With Inouye’s death, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, approaching 89, is the last one left in the Senate. Through the horror of war, those men learned to believe in the national interest, and in one another. They trusted one another and loved one another.
As Bob Dole struggled to his feet and saluted his friend Danny, he reminded us how precious good will is in our national life. And how much we miss it today.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.