The Civility Defense Force
David Abshire Aims to Put the Polite Back in 'Political'

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
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:

"Suisse First Boston -- 1.5. ImClone -- 7. Rite Aid -- 8. Enron -- 10. Adelphia -- 20. Dynergy -- 24.3. WorldCom -- 25. The stock price of those firms? Perhaps the recent return on equity? No, those are the number of years that senior executives of those firms were sentenced to prison."

The skewering in that February speech spread to government, sports and education, for the missteps and moral lapses that Abshire called "the crisis of character in American life."

His footprint in Washington has been large for years, as has his reputation for getting people to do what he wanted, for "making you feel that he's doing you a tremendous favor for giving you that opportunity," his old friend, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, joked during a colloquium at the Dirksen Senate office building yesterday in Abshire's honor. Abshire's tact, Kissinger said, is "a truly artistic performance."

Kissinger chairs the International Councillors Group at CSIS and has maintained an office at the K Street think tank for years. Kissinger is not listed on the civility committee. Nor was he listed last year. He's an institution unto himself anyway -- but that's a different story.

As for Abshire, last year his sixth book came out: "Saving the Reagan Presidency: Trust Is the Coin of the Realm." It chronicles how Reagan summoned Abshire, his ambassador to NATO, to serve as a special presidential counselor during the Iran-contra affair to help protect the presidency and act as a liaison with Congress.

The book also tells how Nixon summoned him, too. Abshire served as an assistant secretary of state for congressional relations during the Nixon years, a job that made him "a diplomat, a political scientist and even, at times, a psychiatrist," he writes. And when Watergate exploded, Nixon wanted Abshire's services at the White House to help fend off impeachment.

Trouble was, Abshire didn't trust his president.

In the book, he recounts telling his shocked stepfather-in-law: "I don't believe he's telling the truth." Nixon did not get him to the White House; Abshire tactfully declined.

In 2000, before that bitterly contested presidential election was decided, Abshire's presidential studies center published a collection of case studies titled "Triumphs and Tragedies of the Modern Presidency." And he was called upon to assist the Bush presidential transition.

But he won't offer an assessment of how the Bush team has applied the presidential lessons of the past. His center does not take positions on a sitting president.

All he will say is this: "Hubris is the enemy of civility."

His Committee to Unite a Divided America, co-chaired by Max M. Kampelman, the Cold War nuclear arms negotiator, identifies 12 national challenges he calls "the perfect storm," including the war on terror, nuclear proliferation, runaway health care costs, budget and trade deficits, and what it calls "an alarming decline in character-based leadership." The committee is pushing President Bush and Congress to promote consensus building, mobilize public support for the troops in Iraq and revitalize the United States' role as a global leader, among other things.

But he does not accept the notion that American politics are perhaps polarized beyond repair.

"We say civility doesn't mean we all agree," says Abshire. "Civility means we learn how to handle disagreements. . . . Sometimes out of those differences you get on higher ground."

During the interview, he moves to the edge of his chair, grabs a pamphlet from a pile on his table, and lowers his voice into a dramatic rendering of Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when the would-be signers were divided.

"On the whole, Sir I can not help expressing a Wish that every Member of the Convention, who may still have Objections to it, would, with me, on this Occasion doubt a little of his own Infallibility and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his Name to this Instrument."

Then he chortles with delight at his performance -- channeling a Founding Father.

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