Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Lions Sleep...

The Lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, has passed from the scene and both Democrats and Republicans, allies and opponents lionize his contributions of four decades plus service. All of them seem to agree that what made him such a legislative master was his ability to find common ground. On the Senate floor he might roar and attack but behind the scenes he was ready with a joke, a helping hand, and a genuine desire to work out a solution. At his wake earlier this evening, one of the speakers talked about his lack of pettiness or personal rancor.

What struck me about all of this were the parallels with my own favorite legislator, James Madison. Jemmy like Teddy mastered the art of being an effective legislator. From his mid-twenties on, he served in a series of legislative bodies and was seldom out of office. He started in the colonial Virginia House of Burgesses and moved through the independent Assembly and into the Continental Congress. His most important contribution was helping pass religious freedom legislation and to fight Patrick Henry’s favorite cause, state funding for religious institutions.

Madison is called the Father of the Constitution with good reason. He used the skills he had honed in the rough-and-tumble legislatures of the Revolution and post-Revolutionary period to make sure we built a more perfect union. Jemmy was one of the conspirators who brought the Constitutional Convention into existence. (Patrick Henry stayed home saying he smelled a rat!) He had done extensive homework and showed up early to meet the delegates, take their measure, and begin building relationships. He had a draft of a new constitution introduced as the Virginia Plan. He spoke on every issue, forcefully and often persuasively. He worked in committees and behind the scenes, looking for common ground, striking deals, and building consensus. He socialized and told great, if off-color stories, and seemed to be everywhere doing the one-on-one of good political organizing. In other words he was a great legislator.

Once the Constitution was finished he worked with Alexander Hamilton in a white heat of creativity to author the Federalist, one of the great political documents of all time, arguing persuasively for ratification. Of course he was elected to the Virginia ratifying convention and although he was very ill, probably as a result of his four months of non-stop work in the convention followed by months of work on Federalist, he faced down Patrick Henry’s bombast and dramatic attacks on the new Constitution. He worked his legislative skills to their limits and brought in a paper thin victory.

With the formation of a new Congress, there was a groundswell of support to appoint Madison to the Senate. But now political payback was at work. Patrick Henry blocked his nomination, still smarting from his most recent defeat and never forgiving him for the defeat of state support of religion. Although Henry also attempted to gerrymander his district later, Madison was elected to the House of Representatives every time he ran.

In the new Congress, Madison was in his element and served as Washington’s right-hand man, making sure his legislative agenda was realized. Madison first drafted and then engineered the passing of the Bill of Rights. But perhaps one of his most interesting feats was passing Hamilton’s financial legislation. Here we see a skilled legislator at work. Even though Madison was skeptical of the financial and monetary policy in the bill, he agreed to support it. He worked behind the scenes to line up enough votes so it could pass (and he could save face with constituents and vote against it.)

For most of his life, he was known to be a passionate supporter of republican values and government without being ideological, petty, or back biting. He did not hold grudges and worked to find common ground. But as Washington entered his second term, Madison teamed up with his best friend Thomas Jefferson and fell into the ideological trap as they worked to destroy Hamilton and form the first political party in the modern sense, the Republican Party which morphed into the Democratic Republican party which became the Democratic Party. (Note – the modern Republican party arose in the years before the Civil War.)

Once Jemmy went down this ideological trail, his effectiveness as a legislator declined. When he entered the Executive branch as Jefferson’s Secretary of State and later as President, he was out of his area of real expertise. The master legislator disappeared and the adequate, but not distinguished, executive took his place. In retirement, the gifted Madison returned, without rancor again, reconsidering earlier positions, and looking for common ground.

Perhaps Ted Kennedy’s most enduring legacy will be as a role model for accepting ones gifts, ones true talents, and building them into a lifetime of passionate service. Jemmy could have learned a few things from Teddy…and visa versa. At their best, both men showed us what legislators should be – people who get things done by looking for ways to compromise, to work together, to be collegial, and to eschew ideological and petty rancor, payback, and meanness. Jemmy and Teddy were lions many of today’s legislators should learn from…the lions are sleeping...but hopefully others will awaken...

(C) Rebecca Staton-Reinstein

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