Legend has it that Henry Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams, was walking out of church one Sunday morning when his minister asked him if he had read Charles Darwin’s “On the Origins of the Species”.
“Yes Father,” he answered, “cover to cover.”
“Did it affect your faith in the Creator of the Universe?”
“Not really,” he is said to have responded, “the progression of Presidents of the United States from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant dramatically disproves the theory of evolution.”
I am reminded, if not consoled by this anecdote every four years, when each election cycle seems more polarizing, more poisonous and more depressing than the previous ones.
Sadly, the divisive and demeaning nature of contemporary politics has even spread deep into the Jewish Community, where the loudest, most partisan voices tend to drown out reasoned discussion of issues and candidates.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, on whose United States Senate staff I had the privilege of serving for twenty years (ultimately as his Senior Advisor), used to warn that the greatest danger to American Democracy “may be the effort to impose Parliamentary discipline on a Presidential system.”
Senator Moynihan, the only man to work on the subcabinet or cabinet level for four consecutive United States Presidents – two Democrats and two Republicans, used to speak fondly of how Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson called on the leaders of the other party for “a drink and a deal”, and then inform their own party leadership in Congress of what “I worked out with the other side”.
Of course, they disagreed on many things – just as Ronald Regan and Tip O’Neil did, but they understood that country comes before party, or as President Reagan famously quipped “you can get anything you want done in this town if you will settle for 70% of what you want.”
When things get really depressing I remember the lessons I learned in 1972, when I was privileged, at the age of 25, to hold leadership positions in both a Democratic and a Republican Presidential campaign in the same year (not so unusual in those less partisan days). I began the year on the Hubert Humphrey campaign staff as head of Jewish outreach. He was “Mr. Democrat.” The embodiment of classic liberal values. A “happy warrior” who had lost the heartbreaking 1968 election to the nefarious “Tricky Dick”, Richard M. Nixon. Yet, when he lost the nomination in July of 1972 to George McGovern, whom he considered to be far too left wing for his party and our country, Hubert Humphrey picked up the phone and called his archnemisis Richard Nixon to offer to help his campaign. I became the youngest National Vice Chairman of Democrats for Nixon, and was joined by many staffers from both the Humphrey and “Scoop” Jackson campaigns (I later learned that Senator Jackson had made a similar phone call.”
Hubert Humphrey taught me an important lesson that night. “Some things,” he said (quoting John Kennedy) “are more important than party loyalty”. We flew around the country telling that to the American people. And it worked, Richard Nixon was re-elected in an historic landslide, but the Democrats gained seats in the Senate and many State legislations.
That was because we taught Americans “that some things are more important than party loyalty.” And that message is so necessary today when the vitriol of this nasty campaign is eating at the very fabric of our community’s civil discourse. Respecting each other, listening to the other side, avoiding harsh generalizations or hateful speech are all more important than party loyalty.
And so, I am excited about a seemingly innocuous request by a group called Acheinu which is asking on all Americans, regardless of faith, to say a prayer for our country and our national dignity on next Tuesday, September 27th.
In particular, they are calling on all Jews to take out the time and read two of King David’s magnificent psalms (20,130) in an effort to remind us that some things are, as always, more important than partisan politics.
What a quaint idea. To pray that we will all speak more kindly to each other. To pray that we will treat our political opponents with dignity and respect. To pray that we remember that when we descend to the gutter we are all soiled. To pray that we all find the strength and good sense to remember that “some things are more important than party loyalty”. A quaint idea! Perhaps. But an excellent one indeed.
David Luchins is a professor at Touro college and chair of its political science department. Luchins served as an aide to then Vice President Hubert Humphrey and for 20 years on the Senate staff of New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan