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July 23rd, 2018

Insight

Trying the Golden Rule in Washington

Suzanne Fields

By Suzanne Fields

Published March 23,2018

Trying the Golden Rule in Washington

So much turmoil. So much chaos. So much cynicism in Washington, D.C., and everywhere else. "Divide" is the name of the game. Everyone is in fighting mode. The most dramatic (and ludicrous) image of the week was President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden boasting how they could punch each other out, as if they were heavyweight boxers prepping for the "Thrilla in Manila" or "the Rumble in the Jungle." Two mature men seasoned in the highest offices of the land sounded more like adolescent boys on the playground, testing their testosterone.

When Rex Tillerson bid farewell to the State Department, having found out he was fired as secretary of state via a Twitter message, he reminded the audience, "This can be a very mean-spirited town." He urged the audience to counter the nastiness, "to treat each other with respect, regardless of the job title, the station in life, or your role." He spoke with a familiar echo of the Golden Rule, saying: "We're all just human beings trying to do our part. Each of us get to choose the person we want to be, and the way we want to be treated, and the way we will treat others."

The departing secretary of state isn't alone in searching for ways to talk to one another without the snark that begets anger, hair-trigger tempers and the obscenity that has become the lingua franca of the capital. My mailbox is filled with expressions of outrage over the endless outrage.

There seems to be a craving for community, for a sense that we're all in this together and we should seek solutions through a give-and-take in reasoned debate, rather than always agitating for advantage. But balanced voices are drowned by the din.


Two men in power in Washington have written a book to identify ways to ameliorate some of the pervasive vitriol in the current Congress. "Unified" by Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy, both from South Carolina, tells how their unlikely friendship offers hopeful tips for diluting the power of rabid divisions in the country. Scott is black, and Gowdy is white. Their grandparents, to whom they dedicate their book, lived in a segregated age that ensured they probably would never meet and, if they did, could never mingle. If they'd had the opportunity of knowing each other, they probably would have embraced the prejudice that divided them.

Two generations later, their grandsons carry a different degree of separation. Both are Republicans, but they occupy different places on the political spectrum.

Scott was the first black Republican congressman elected in South Carolina since 1896, and Party leaders immediately saw him as a valuable face in the lineup. Reporters and pundits sought him out as a senator with star power. As a black conservative, he was encouraged to be as "visible" as possible. But he didn't always want to be the go-to guy with "the conservative black perspective on every issue."

Gowdy got to Congress by beating an incumbent in the primary. He was labeled as a comer in the tea party. Along with his funny hair, dark-blue suits and white cotton socks, he showed a serious side as a tough prosecutor, employing intellectual discipline to make the most of a cross-examination.

Neither man was a partier or a drinker, so they quickly found camaraderie by seeking common ground despite disparate backgrounds. Their book is filled with familiar platitudes of common sense that worked once and they think might work again. Instead of focusing on differences, they look for commonalities.

Scott tells how he was supported by a volunteer who wore a T-shirt with the Confederate flag, and how one voter said he didn't care if his congressman was "black, white, or polka-dotted" as long as he was a conservative. Gowdy thinks the only important division is the one between those of good conscience and those who aren't. He hosted roundtables throughout the state, bringing together pastors, police officers and administrators to seek reunion in communities where conflict was rife. There were no cameras. He even persuaded Jeff Sessions, then newly nominated to be U.S. attorney general, to attend one roundtable. The book is punctuated with refreshing anecdotes about how Washington works (when it does), but stories about friendship and inspiration can be a tough sell when the discontent of difference is the driving force for getting attention.

When their book was finished, Gowdy, the powerful chairman of the House Oversight Committee, not without controversy, called it quits with partisan politics and said he will be going home to practice law. The toxic nature of Washington had finally gotten to him. Scott tried to dissuade him, but not even friendship could stretch that far. Farewell to fame, strife and all that.

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