Advise and Consent

advise+and+consentadvise and consentSenate Rule 38: …the final question on every nomination shall be, “Will the Senate advise and consent to this nomination?…”

In Otto Preminger’s 1962 film of Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Advise and Consent, Walter Pidgeon – playing the Senate Majority Leader – tells the fictional president: “that’s a hell of an appointment.”

That must be every majority leader’s lament to every president: “you gave me this nomination to get through the Senate?”

I got to thinking, in light of Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court and the nasty, Internet-driven campaign to raise questions about her sexual orientation – if the old Drury novel, with the same subplot, holds up all these years later. Simple answer: absolutely.

The dust jacket of Advise and Consent – it was published in 1959 – talks about “driving ambition” and “ugly personal jealousies” and the always popular “vicious demagogues.” Sounds like this morning’s headlines. The Senate historian has a wonderful piece on the book that provides some guesses as to who Drury based his characters on and notes that the novel launched his fiction writing career.

How good was the book? Drury’s major competition for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1960 was Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King and, this is saying something, the inside account of a Washington, D.C. Senate confirmation fight won out. In literary competitions, as in politics, you are often defined by who you beat.

Writing in Policy Review Roger Kaplan said Advise and Consent is the only book of its genre – the political thriller – worthy of literary acclaim. And NPR’s Scott Simon noted on the 50th anniversary of the novel that he has read and re-read the book since first discovering it when he was 12 years old.

Thomas Mallon’s 50-year look back at the book in the New York Times noted that Drury’s senators in the late 1950’s were dealing with issues of pre-empetive war, the consequences of lying under oath and the notion that the cover up is always worse than the crime. Add the sexual orientation subplot now rearing its ugly head in the Kagan nomination and it is easy to conclude that not much changes in American politics.

I also agree with Peter Bogdanovich that Preminger’s movie, based on the book, just might be the best American political movie ever. It has a great cast, in addition to Pidgeon, that includes Henry Fonda, Don Murray, Peter Lawford, the great Charles Laughton and, brace yourself, Betty White. It is a great film.

Drury’s story, of course, involves a decades-old allegation about sexual orientation. Eventually all the principle characters know what’s going on, as do newspaper reporters, and in 1959 – at least in Advise and Consent – the mere hint of being outted as a homosexual was enough to prompt a suicide of a prominent senator. The whispering about Kagan has already moved to the mainstream with the Associated Press asking if her orientation is anyone’s business. Ultimately that question, and any other you can think of, is for the Senate to determine as part of its Constitutional duty to advise and consent. How the question is handled will say as much about the Senate as it will about the nominee.

Years after his celebrated book was published and after Drury, a Times reporter, had written several other not-so-well received books, he was asked what he made of the Senate that he had long covered and wrote about in fiction and non-fiction books. Drury said: “There’s nothing like it on God’s green earth.” That’s for sure.

Read the book and rent the movie. Think of it as research for the Kagan hearings.

Shedding a Political Past

mccainspecterThat Reminds Me of a Story…

I think the wonderful line is attributable to former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson. At least I’ll give him credit. It sounds like something he would have said.

When asked if there is any cure for the “disease of politics,” the crusty old GOP moderate replied: “Yup, embalming fluid.”

I have been thinking about that line in connection with the U.S. Senate primary races underway in Arizona, where John McCain is doing everything he can to get rid of any hint that he was once the Senate’s biggest maverick, and in Pennsylvania, where Arlen Specter is running away from his 40-plus years as a Republican.

There is much to lament these days in our politics, but it is downright sad to see guys like McCain and Specter abandon character right along with the policies they have embraced for years. I know, it’s all about political survival in this toxic environment, but they still have to look themselves in the mirror every morning when they lather up. You wonder how they do it.

McCain has embraced the controversial Arizona immigration law like the born again Tea Party activist that he has become. This despite his courageous bi-partisan efforts – with Ted Kennedy – to force action on an immigration strategy that might have actually helped address the problem. McCain’s new TV spot features him walking along the Arizona-Mexico border talking tough with a sheriff about finishing “the dang fence,” a policy he once dismissed as ineffective.

Specter is running TV spots featuring President Obama saying nice things about him after he cravenly switched parties in order, as he put it at the time, to have a chance of being re-elected to a sixth term. A few months ago Specter, then a Republican, voted against the confirmation of Elena Kagan to be solicitor general of the United States. Now that he’s a Democrat, he thinks Kagan looks a whole lot better as a Supreme Court nominee.

These guys, both admirable in past lives because of their cranky independence, have succumbed to the political disease to such a degree that they appear ready to do and say almost anything to hang on to high public office. Make way the embalming fluid.

And while it may be true, in Emerson’s famous phrase, that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” We’ll see soon enough if voters agree.

The real point of the famous essay – Self-Reliance – that Emerson’s “foolish consistency” line is plucked from is contained at the very end.

“A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

Principle is taking a beating in these two races.

Civilization Requires Civility

leachNational Civility Tour Comes to Idaho

Jim Leach is on a mission. The former Republican Congressman from Iowa, now chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), has the passionate belief that we’re shaking the foundations of our democracy by the way we handle our political discourse. Leach is on a mission for civility.

In a speech last fall in Nebraska, appropriately entitled “With Malice Toward None,” Leach said:

“The public goal should be to recognize that it is great to be a conservative or libertarian; great to be a liberal, a moderate, or progressive. But it is not great to hate. It is not great to refuse to respect one’s fellow citizens at home and refuse to endeavor to understand fellow peoples abroad.

“The decency and fairness with which political decisions are made are generally more important than the outcome of any issue. The ‘how’ almost always matters more than the ‘what.'”

Leach should know. He spent 30 years in Congress, rose to the top ranks, lost re-election in 2006, taught at Princeton and was tapped by President Obama to run the Endowment last year. Almost immediately he launched a 50-state “civility tour” talking about the importance to a functioning democracy of understanding and not demonizing your political opponents. He talks about the search for “the common good,” not just partisan advantage. Leach has a politician’s experience and a scholar’s disposition. Believe me, that is a rare but valuable combination.

The Andrus Center for Public Policy – I serve as the Center’s volunteer president – will host Leach for a lunch and talk on June 11th at the Grove Hotel in downtown Boise. The Idaho Humanities Council, the state – based affiliate of the NEH – has been instrumental in getting the chairman to Idaho. Leach will speak on “Civility in a Fractured Society.”

Leach doesn’t call for the abandonment of fiercely held political principles, but rather that we not start the political discourse by assuming that the other person’s position is automatically suspect and therefore not worthy of consideration. It is a message the Andrus Center embraces. The Center was formed in 1995 to help carry on the approach to public affair that the four-term former Idaho governor embodied – vigorous, but civil debate that sought to find win-win solutions.

Seating for the luncheon and speech is limited and you can reserve a spot online at the Center’s website.

As columnist Jamie Stiehm noted recently in U.S. News – to steal Dr. Samuel Johnson’s phrase – “we’ve become good at hating,” but not so good at being civil. Jim Leach is trying to save us from ourselves. Let’s hope he’s making progress.

The Brits Know How to Have an Election

downingYou Want Change…

Put me down as an Anglophile. London is a great city. Winston Churchill was, and I know I’ll get an argument, the indispensable man of the 20th Century. Theater, music, literature, quirky humor, lukewarm beer, whiskey from Scotland – I really like the mother country.

The British have their challenges, needless to say, but the recent election there is a reminder of how much Great Britain has to teach us about conducting a spirited and quick national election, making a decisive change in leadership – again quickly – and doing it all with a fair amount of style and class.

Gordon Brown, the just ousted prime minister, will never be confused for Churchill, but it was hard not to admire the way he left Downing Street yesterday in route to hand his resignation to the Queen. Stiff upper lip and all that.

At the same time, David Cameron, the 43-year-old leader of the Conservatives immediately became the youngest prime minister in 200 years. You win an election in Great Britain and poof – you move in at No. 10. You wonder if they had time to change the sheets.

You must also admire the speed and decisiveness with which Cameron and Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg closed a deal to forge the first genuine coalition government in Britain since World War II. Clegg will be the deputy prime minister and several of his Lib Dem colleagues will get spots in the Cabinet, Britain gets a fresh start with two attractive younger leaders and it all happened in a matter of days.

As the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum noted, the British system worked beautiful and now the Tories confront the nation’s economic troubles in full partnership with the left of center Liberal Democrats. Each party has a stake in working on the details and fixing the economy. It may not work in the end, but some how all the players seem to have been trying to find the best path for the country once the voters had spoken, and not very decisively at that.

I’ve had a running debate with my much better half for years over the relative merits of the British and American systems. As our politics have become ever more polarized – can you imagine Barack Obama and John McCain negotiating a power-sharing arrangement – and voters feeling like Washington is less and less accountable, I find the parliamentary system to have more and more appeal. Key members of the ruling party in Britain actually run departments of government. They must propose and defend their own budgets and plans. They must stand weekly for questions from the opposition.

Its not any fun to lose an election in Britain, I know, but its not often an occasion for prolonged transitions and public agonizing. Tradition demands a certain pace and, after all, the Queen is waiting.

What would our system be like, in a variation on the Brits’ approach, if the president drew his cabinet from the leading members of his party in the Congress? Hillary Clinton could still be in the Senate and Secretary of State. Ken Salazar could run Interior and still be the Senator from Colorado. How about Barney Frank running the Treasury Department or the Securities and Exchange Commission? OK, maybe not. But, you get the point. Separation of powers problems aside, with a hybrid American-British system we’d have more accountability and if the president lost a key vote in Congress – bam – national election. It wouldn’t hurt us to shorten up our transition, either. In the modern age, from election day to January 20th is an eternity. The British do it better.

I know, as my better half says, what are you thinking, or smoking? Still the British, with all their problems and challenges, have something to teach us about four-week long campaigns, the ability to quickly and effectively form coalition governments and a chance to provide real change and accountability for those running the government.

After all, it’s not like we have the perfect system. We could learn some things. Might do us good.

But She Isn’t a Judge

kaganMany Great Ones Weren’t, Either

The early line of attack against Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan seems to be focusing on her lack of “judicial experience.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, among others, voiced that concern after President Obama announced her appointment Monday.

While Texas Sen. John Cornyn was lamenting Kagan’s lack of judicial chops, someone was remembering that he thought George W. Bush’s nominee Harriett Miers lack of the same was just fine.

Lots of water to go under this confirmation bridge, but the “lacking judicial experience” line, from an historical perspective, doesn’t hold water. The history of the nation’s high court is a story of many celebrated justices who donned the black robe for the first time only after they joined the Committee of Nine.

Consider these names, just in the 20th Century:

Chief Justices Harlan Fiske Stone, a law school dean, like Kagan, and then Attorney General before going to the court. Or, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a Justice Department lawyer, before becoming a Justice. Hugo Black a U.S. Senator. William O. Douglas, a senior federal official with no judicial experience. Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, Lewis Powell and Earl Warren, all without prior judicial experience and all who became celebrated justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In fact, every president from FDR to Nixon appointed at least one justice without prior experience on the bench.

Given the extreme partisanship that surrounds all judicial nominees, Kagan will have to run the confirmation gauntlet and answer questions about everything she has ever said, written or done. Fair enough. It is a life-time appointment, but not being a judge – as American history shows – certainly shouldn’t be a prime factor in the confirmation test. Until fairly recently it hasn’t been much of a consideration at all.

By the way, for students of the Supreme Court, the SCOTUSblog may be the best source around for really good information on the nominee, what she has said and done and what others are saying about her.

Back to the Future

glassIs it Time to Bring Back Glass-Steagall?

Carter Glass (left) developed an impressive resume during his nearly 50 years in public life – Congressman, Secretary of the Treasury under Woodrow Wilson, architect of the Federal Reserve System and U.S. Senator. If he’s remembered at all more than 60 years after his death it for the financial services regulation he authored – the Glass-Steagall Act – and pushed through the Senate in 1933.

A key provision of Glass-Steagall regulated for the first time the speculative activities of banks and mandated the eventual separation of commercial banking from investment banking. Bankers would have to chose under Glass’ legislation to accept deposits and make loans – commercial banking – or invest and trade in securities and other instruments – investment banking. There is general agreement that the legislation stablized banking in the 1930’s and provided a solid platform on which to build a strong and sustainable system for the rest of the 20th Century.

Wall Street was never satisfied, however, and after years of lobbying to end the separation and “reform” and modernize banking for the 21st Century, Congress repealed provisions of Glass-Steagall in 1999. President Bill Clinton signed the legislation.

The final Senate vote was a lopsided 90-8. Still, there were some voices back in 1999 expressing concern about doing away with the Depression-era legislation. When you go back and read the comments of North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, one of the no votes, you almost feel he had a crystal ball allowing a look into the future.

”I think we will look back in 10 years’ time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past, and that which is true in the 1930’s is true in 2010.

”I wasn’t around during the 1930’s or the debate over Glass-Steagall,” Dorgan went on, “but I was here in the early 1980’s when it was decided to allow the expansion of savings and loans. We have now decided in the name of modernization to forget the lessons of the past, of safety and of soundness.”

The late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota called Glass-Steagall a “stabilizer” during the Great Depression “designed to keep a similar tragedy from recurring.”

The fears were discounted by the proponents who, after all, had the votes. Then-Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska said: ”The concerns that we will have a meltdown like 1929 are dramatically overblown.”

Now, in the wake of the greatest financial crisis since 1929, a host of people think the repeal was a bad idea and even some who originally supported it, like Arizona’s John McCain, are supporting a return of Glass-Steagall. Even an ex-Merrill Lynch executive said he regretted supporting repeal.

The great financial meltdown of 2008 had roots deep in the fertile soil of a wild and unsustainable real estate market, unregulated and unintelligible exotic investment tools and regulators at the federal level who were too often asleep at the switch. Someday we may know the full story that is still unfolding thanks primarily to good reporting and post-disaster analysis.

One could make the argument, and more and more are making it, that the great collapse really began when Washington wiped from the books a Depression-era law written by the long forgotten senator from Virginia – Carter Glass.