War And Peace At Camp Equinunk — Lessons For Congress?

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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As public approval of the U.S. Congress continues to dip to ever-lower levels, it is worth examining the cultural phenomenon of something called the Color War at traditional sleep-away summer camps, and what it can teach members of Congress in today’s polarized environment.

I have written before about the summer camp I went to in my youth, Camp Equinunk, located about 50 miles to the northeast of Scranton in Wayne County, Pa. I was a counselor there in the 1960s, and my oldest son and daughter were campers and counselors in the 1980s. (My daughter went to the co-owned girl’s camp across the lake, Camp Blue Ridge.) Now, my two younger sons and two grandsons are campers there.

Equinunk and Blue Ridge are similar to many other general (non-specialty) sleep-away camps that still exist in America. In the seventh, last week of camp, Color War “breaks” and the camp is divided into two teams, representing Equinunk’s two camp colors, red and gray. [I know, I know: It would be better for this “Purple Nation” column if Equinunk’s colors were red and blue. But not to be.]

During the next four days, the divided camp — age group by age group, from the 8- to 9-year-old “sophs” to the esteemed 15-year-old “seniors” — competes in virtually all sports. The older the group, the more points the events are worth.

It is hard to understate the intensity of the competition. In the words of the late Jim McKay, all experience the “thrill of victory … and the agony of defeat.”

After four days, it is over and the teams line up at the camp flagpole. Each of the two counselor chiefs removes his team’s hatchet from the wooden plank where it has been placed each day to reflect the varying point totals. Then, together, they go to a patch of grass near the flagpole and — I am not making this up —literally “bury the hatchets” in the ground from which they had been taken four days before in the opening ceremony.

The two teams, lined up on opposite sides, come together. Camp Equinunk is one again. All link arms and softly sing “Taps”: “Day is done, gone the sun; from the lake, from the hill, from the sky; all is well, safely rest. God is nigh.”

So what lessons can members of Congress learn from all this?

I don’t expect or want today’s members of Congress to participate in a “bury the hatchets” ceremony. I would be afraid that instead of burying the hatchets in the ground, they might be too tempted to find someone’s back in the opposite party. (Only kidding — well, almost).

I also don’t expect them to link arms and sing “Taps” together. Many would worry that this song represents the coming end to their political careers. (Not kidding).

But I do ask members of Congress, when they return in September, for just a couple of weeks to try to accomplish something. If they can’t pass comprehensive immigration reform, perhaps they can agree on temporary humane solutions to take care of the tens of thousands of innocent children from Central America who are scared and looking for hope. Maybe a member can invite a member from the other party to go to lunch or dinner without fearing being called out and threatened at the next party caucus event. Or they can try a new seating system in the House and Senate — seating by alphabet, not by party, for instance — so that they actually will regularly have a chance each day to talk to someone who happens to be a member of the other party.

Isn’t it time to put the partisan wars behind and try to make up? If the kids can do it after color war at summer camp, why can’t Congress?

If they don’t, I am pretty confident of one thing: come November, a lot of members will be looking for a new job — maybe even a counselor at a summer camp. 

Lanny Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and is Executive Vice President of the strategic communications firm, Levick. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life (Threshold Editions/Simon and Schuster).