The Civility Defense Force
Friday, April 7, 2006
Bombast and bloviation. They're everywhere in Washington.
And yet, consider David Abshire. What are we to make of him? Consider this man (as scores of his friends and colleagues did during events thrown yesterday in his honor) who is an academic and diplomat, who was schooled in the polarized Nixon and Reagan years, who has been steeped in the Washington ferment for decades, but who nonetheless has etched a unique spot as the apostle of civility. Yes, Abshire's preaching comity precisely because the polarization these days is so extreme.
Surely this is jest! "Civility" and "politics" in the same sentence? How oxymoronic.
Abshire's not worried. He has mustered an impressive list of converts to the idea that politics and policymaking don't always have to be ugly. They've got a Declaration on Civility and Inclusive Leadership, plus a National Committee to Unite a Divided America. Unveiled last year, the committee has more than 180 high-powered members, from former Cabinet secretaries to CEOs to academics, across party and ideological lines.
But a couple of well-known names have been dropped since last year, Abshire reveals in his courtly Tennessee drawl.
"One of them fell down in character," he says coyly, in an interview in his office, "and one of them got so egregious . . ." He trails off, shakes his head, lowers his voice with dramatic tactfulness and says: "It's best just to quietly not have them in the [Declaration's] reprint. . . . They were, in effect, trouble."
He won't name names. That would be uncivil.
Abshire, who turns 80 next week, is known for this -- for being the discreet and judicious convener and manager of the A-list powerful. He co-founded the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 1962, remains its vice chairman, and presides over the Center for the Study of the Presidency -- two platforms from which he has studied and observed politics when he wasn't directly in the game.
Partisanly speaking, he is a Republican, he says, but "inactive" in party politics, the better to maintain credibility.
Last night, in the way that Washington organizations have of applauding their own, the Center for the Study of the Presidency conferred on him its Publius Award -- named for the collective pseudonym used by Federalist Papers authors Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. Yesterday's festivities also honored his center's presidential fellows.
It's not just civility that Abshire is pushing these days. He's added character to the crusade.
In opening remarks at last night's dinner for Abshire in the packed Mayflower Hotel ballroom, former senator Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, read a bit of a recent Abshire speech: