Along about this time in the delivery of a new administration, the first, sweet cries of bipartisanship fill the air, as in: "Let's have a bipartisan foreign policy."
That, we are now told, is what President-elect Ronald Reagan seeks. He has always been an accommodating fellow. He will name Democrats to his Cabinet. Encouraged, it is said, by the counsel of Henry Kissinger, Reagan will strive mightily for a "bipartisan" foreign policy.
Fair enough. The point here is not to question intentions but to apply an early surgeon general's warning, so to say, to this buzzword "bipartisanship."
Suppose Sen. Henry Jackson, for example, is appointed secretary of defense, and a few Democrats of similar policy persuasion are salted into the upper planning councils, and this is offered as as "bipartisan" gesture. The proof will be in whether any significant number of Democrats come to believe that this constitutes for them a significant hand in the "takeoffs" of foreign policy as distinct, in the phrase of the late Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, from "the crash landings."
It was Vandenberg's close collaboration as a leading Senate Republican with Harry Truman right after World War II, you will recall, that for the first (some would say the only) time gave real meaning to bipartisanship in foreign policy.
Suppose a Democratic "Vandenberg" emerges in the Senate, or the new administration finds other mechanisms for regular and serious efforts to accommodate dissenting views in Congress. Again the proof of "bipartisanship" will be in how much sense of satisfaction and/or participation is given to those of opposing views.
The definition of bipartisanship, as laid down by that consummate political etymologist, William Safire, in his "Political Dictionary" is, "interparty cooperation on a matter that is essentially political. . . . In bipartisanship, politicians set aside differences. . . ." And, occasionally, it has worked -- with President Eisenhower and a Democratic Congress strongly led by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson in the Senate and Speaker Sam Rayburn in the House, and most notably in the earlier immediate postwar Vandenberg era. But even Vandenberg, Safire notes, "was nagged by his worry about bipartisanship being carried dangerously far."
By 1950, Vandenberg was asking rhetorically if "bipartisanship meant more Chinas and more [Alger] Hisses and more messes with Russian bombs hanging over us." Not exactly what you would call a "setting aside of differences."
History, in short, suggests that "bipartisanship" is a sometime thing, applicable to wartime or such grand undertakings as the Marshall Plan, but not necessarily suited to today's problems or to the somewhat free play of today's politics. "Rayburn had real authority," recalls former senator J. William Fulbright, whose service for 15 years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (through the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon presidencies) qualifies him as something of an expert on the history of bipartisanship.
"But now," Fullbright continued, in a recent interview, "there's no discipline, no responsibility." As he sees it, the issue is not so much bipartisanship, strictly defined, as relations between the White House and Congress. The "reform" of the congressional seniority system combined with the decline in the power of political parties, he argues, is the real obstacle to consensus-building with Congress on foreign policy.
As for "bipartisanship," it's merely "a device for disarming the opposition, for making you look unpatriotic," Fullbright contends, citing his own experience with Lyndon Johnson. "He used me," Fulbright recalls, at the start of the Vietnam War. For the first three months, he adds, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger "conned me into thinking they had a plan to end the Vietnam War."
All this is not to prejudge a Reagan prescription of "bipartisanship" for what ails contemporary foreign policy. Used as directed by past experience, and depending on precisely what one has in mind, it can be taken as no more than soothing rhetoric. It can, in rare instances of a widely perceived national threat or opportunity, mark a sincere effort to cultivate broad consensus.
And it could be used as a narcotic, harmful to dissent. But this, I suspect, may not be its greatest fault. Suppose it really worked? Nobody must know better than Ronald Reagan that a foreign policy sufficiently "bipartisan" to encompass all the sharp differences that emerged in the course of this year's campaign -- on defense, arms control, the Mideast, the nature of the Soviet threat, human rights -- could wind up being no foreign policy at all.