The word “comity” refers to having a friendly, social atmosphere. But today, on Capitol Hill, comity is at low ebb. Political discourse has degenerated from the time-honored “agreeing to disagree” to “causes” being fought with weapons such as ad hominems, smears and partial truths. Civility and humor has been smothered by anger and cynicism.
As recently as 30 years ago, things were different. At the time of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, I was living on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., just six blocks from the building itself. I walked to the ceremonies. Like so many other D.C. left-of-center denizens, I feared the worst. Here came this actor and his band of Southern California ideologues on a mission to destroy the New Deal and, with it, the city itself.
It took me about a month to reassess.
Turns out that the Reagans hadn’t come to destroy government; rather, they came to watch it grow. They hadn’t come to destroy the nation’s capital, they had come to spiff it up — to finish the work the Kennedys had begun.
To understand where the Reagans’ hearts and minds were, forget D.C. circa 1980; instead, take a stroll down Rodeo Drive. When the Reagans were away from Santa Barbara and the ranch, Nancy was always drawn to upscale urban habitats. Beverly Hills was her ideal.
Irony of ironies, during the Reagan years, the nation’s capital flourished. All that defense spending had much to do with it. The never completed “Star Wars” brought high-tech to the region. While the rest of the country experienced a deep recession, the D.C. area, because of government spending, sailed right through (as it usually does). By the time the Reagans left office in 1989, Washington, D.C., had become more of an international city — much nearer to being the center of the western world.
And there was more: In a strange way comity flourished as well.
Shortly after the inauguration, the Reagans threw a big party. One look at the guest list should have been enough to change minds. Turns out that they invited every well-known Democrat in that most Democratic of cities. One of the invitees was Katharine Graham, publisher of the critical and sometimes even hostile, Washington Post, the paper of Watergate fame.
In her autobiography, Graham writes, “I was unable to attend because of an out-of-town speech, but decided to invite them in return and was delighted when they accepted.”
Well, Katherine and Nancy hit it off; thus commenced what would be a life-long friendship — between two women whose politics couldn’t have been farther apart. They began enjoying weekly lunches together, many attended by Meg Greenfield, the editorial writer for the Post.
During the summer of 1985, Mrs. Grahaminvited Mrs. Reagan to spend a weekend with her on Martha’s Vineyard. She accepted. Guests included the Deavers and Warren Buffett, a long-time friend of Mrs. Graham. “It was a typical Vineyard weekend,” she writes, “very informal, with walks on the beach and casual dinners. I think Nancy enjoyed it. I know I did.”
The truth was that the Reagans were cosmopolitan, secular and socially sophisticated. They actually had little patience for the ideological purity that their party today requires as a condition of acceptance, let alone influence.
The Reagans, it turned out, had little time for moralizing rubes.
When you got beyond lower taxes, less regulation and anti-Communism, Reagan lost interest. Moreover, he would negotiate over all of his three pet political issues. He would even raise taxes six times, retreat on some of his deregulation and he even bargained with Gorbachev.
It wasn’t as if there was peace in the city. Throughout the 1980s, the Democrats, led by House Speaker Tip O’Neill, blasted Reagan’s policies every day in the morning paper — causing, no doubt, what Katherine Graham referred to as the “ups and downs” of her friendship. But just as Nancy would not let Graham’s newspaper ruin the friendship that had become so important to her, so too did her husband avoid personalizing the political mortars being lobbed his way by O’Neill. They got along. Famously.
Reagan once remarked that “after 6 pm, Tip and I are good friends.” Viewing your political opponent as a three-dimensional human makes a difference. It’s what comity depends upon.
So to what can we attribute such dysfunctional nastiness that persists today? Three reasons leap out. First there’s Nixon’s Southern Strategy, which wedded racism and an emerging southern upper middle class, and eventually, with religious fundamentalism. That didn’t help.
Second, and more recently, there was Rupert Murdoch’s appointment of Roger Ailes to head Fox News.
Finally, I suggest that comity has been impacted adversely by demographics — specifically, the move of more members of Congress to the suburbs. The compartmentalized lifestyle, automobile-centered and a predisposition to objectify civic life — today’s representatives head home to their backyard decks rather than mixing with folks at the corner tavern. Not good. This is a change from the Reagan years.
Put into relief, do you really think that, had Katherine Graham been living up the river in Maryland instead of Georgetown, the Reagans would have come to her dinner? Or that she would have invited them?