The top domestic news over the last week has been pretty much the 55th presidential inauguration and confirmation battles on Capitol Hill. But what shows up on the tube at 6 and 11 o'clock doesn't necessarily consist of the most significant doings in town. For example, two Washington events leading up to George Bush's Big Bash completely escaped the camera's eye. In the long run, however, they could be every bit as consequential as the president's Inauguration Day declarations or the confirmation votes.
The first episode took place two weeks ago at a Washington think-tank roundtable. A group of about 20 men and women drawn from the worlds of journalism, business, government, religion and nonprofits gathered late in the day to talk about the increasing incivility and polarization in the country. The convenor, David Abshire of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, had published an essay, "The Grace and Power of Civility: Lessons From the American Experience for the Coming Four Years," that served as a basis for the off-the-record forum.
There was broad agreement that two consecutive contentious presidential elections have left the country with pronounced partisan and ideological schisms. Most agreed with Abshire's contention that the present crisis of division comes at a time when the country faces serious long-term challenges: the global war on terrorism; conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the turbulent Middle East; a growing national deficit; looming problems with Social Security and Medicare; a breakdown in public education; rising anti-Americanism abroad. Without the presence of civility in the national debate -- not the "bite-your-tongue-to-keep-the peace" variety but civility based on mutual respect, careful listening and honest dialogue -- a polarized country won't be able to tackle those problems.
Tolerance, as in having respect for the views of others, is in short supply these days, the group agreed. So, unfortunately is the ability to listen.
There was also a consensus that:
American politics can do with less absolutism (it closes off dialogue).
Wedge issues so beloved by campaign strategists contribute to incivility and division.
Owning up to political mistakes can be a valuable lesson in humility.
Compromise and collaboration for the common good should outweigh political and personal differences.
Sound like apple-pie thinking? Well not quite. It turns out that worry about open hostility and the loss of a middle ground in our politics occupies the minds of more than the roundtable's participants. Since the forum, more than 70 leaders in public policy, academia, religion and politics have come together to create a National Committee to Unite a Divided America. The aim is to bridge political differences and foster greater civility and inclusiveness in government. Can it be done?
Well, it's not every day that the likes of Abshire; Max Kampelman, the former chief negotiator on strategic arms reduction with the Soviet Union; Togo West Jr., president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank; Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser; Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan's U.N. ambassador; Thomas "Mack" McLarty, Bill Clinton's former chief of staff; and Jane Dixon, former bishop pro tempore of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, can come together on a single subject. But they and dozens of other prominent Americans of different political stripes have signed up with the committee because they believe the lack of national unity in the face of tough international and domestic challenges could have tragic consequences. They are going to press the president, Congress and political leaders around the country to set a new tone for the nation and to unite Americans in the spirit of civility and shared sacrifice that was demonstrated after Sept. 11, 2001.
Doable? A house as divided as the nation is today deserves no less of an effort. It's at least as worthy as staging a lavish inauguration or indulging in the Washington pastime of eviscerating political opponents.
The second little-noticed proceeding occurred the day after the roundtable. The event was the Washington Hebrew Congregation's Shabbat service commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Although the service was about the slain civil rights leader, the gathering became a celebration of another great moment in the Washington experience.
I've participated in interfaith services before, but none like this. Gone were those showy but strained gestures of politeness that often attend such events. That evening, the Washington Hebrew Congregation played host to an array of Protestant and Catholic clergy as well as members and choirs representing Alfred Street Baptist Church, Metropolitan Wesley Zion AME Church and Turner Memorial AME Church. What set the evening apart from other gatherings of its kind was an inescapable sense that the men and women eating and worshiping together at the synagogue had reached a higher plateau: They weren't being nice or putting up with each other or sugarcoating their racial and religious differences. They had moved beyond what passes these days for tolerance; they had reached the stage of acceptance based on familiarity with and respect for each other's cherished ideals.
And so that Friday evening, the congregants moved seamlessly from breaking bread together in the dining hall to sitting in the sanctuary nodding their heads to "Down by the Riverside" and "Samachti B'omrim Li" to enjoying a liturgical dance and drama by young dancers from Metropolitan Wesley AME. Later they observed the kiddush, in which young boys raised the cup of wine in thanksgiving. In a city splintered by race, class and ideology, it was an evening of service in which people of different faiths and backgrounds connected, finding common ground on which to stand: their spirituality.
Imagine if that catches on. Imagine, too, if civility and acceptance became part of our daily lives.
From watching the tube, you wouldn't know any of this was going on in Washington.
P.S.: To the more than 800 readers who responded to last week's column on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Sen. Barbara Boxer, I say thanks. Couldn't answer them all, but I read most. I leave you with this from an unknown source: "The words you speak today should be soft and tender . . . for tomorrow you may have to eat them."