Democrat Tip O’Neill and Republican Gerald Ford were pals. Men’s men, they were, at a time when Congress, as then-Rep. Patricia Schroeder called it, was “the planet of the guys.” They claimed leadership posts in the House to a large degree because their colleagues liked their company on the floor or in the evening, when members still capped a day with a snort.
When Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned, after being charged with taking envelopes of cash, Ford assumed the office and ultimately ascended to the presidency, in no small part because his pal Tip sold him to Richard Nixon as a popular fella who could get confirmed amid the Watergate wars.
But lest we get all lachrymose about those lost golden days of comity in Congress, before the evil Newt Gingrich and the archfiend Grover Norquist arrived in the capital (as the current commentary would have it), it’s useful to recall the role that O’Neill played in Ford’s exit from the Oval Office. The Congress that returns later this month may seem the very figure of indocility and dysfunction, but we’ve witnessed this kind of partisan animus before.
In private conversations with the press, O’Neill would shake his head mournfully and bemoan with ersatz regret how his ol’ pal Jerry just wasn’t bright enough to be president. And in public, Tip was savage, calling Ford “a lousy president … worse than Harding and Hoover put together .… [whose] accomplishments are minuscule.”
Ford’s aides were outraged. In interviews and in their oral histories at the Ford presidential library, one after another castigated O’Neill for duplicity. The Massachusetts Democrat would be warm and funny on the golf course with the president, they said, then excoriate Ford in the press and take to the House floor in unalterable opposition.
The pattern continued in Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Forget the rosy revisionism about the speaker and the president and their vaunted after-hours truce. Theirs was a six-year, ideological, bloody, bare-knuckles match; cooperation occurred only when one or both of the combatants was too exhausted to prevail.
O’Neill was “the most partisan congressman up there,” recalled Max Friedersdorf, who served both Ford and Reagan. “Tip would cut your heart out.”
Tip had his counterpart in the Senate. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy was renowned for charming conservative colleagues and making bipartisan deals with the likes of Sens. Al Simpson, Orrin Hatch, and Dan Quayle. But that would be the same Sen. Edward Kennedy who set a standard for modern invective with his scorched-earth opposition to Reagan’s 1987 nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
Kennedy helped put a new verb in the political lexicon—to bork—when he told the Senate, “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government.”
So, exactly when was that halcyon era when partisan bickering, as we call it now, bowed to the national interest? During the culture wars, demonstrations, and race riots of the ’60s?
Americans’ fears and disgust of totalitarianism united them during World War II and much of the postwar era, inspiring Sen. Arthur Vandenberg’s nostrum that partisanship ends at the water’s edge. But, at home, the country suffered through witch hunts, in the era named for Sen. Joe McCarthy.
Americans went at each other’s throats during the Red Scare in the 1920s, the great clashes of capital and labor in the Gilded Age, and the nasty days of Reconstruction. And then there was that Civil War. What history major wasn’t taught how Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, after giving a speech deploring slavery in 1856, was attacked at his desk on the Senate floor by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who beat him nigh to death with a cane.
Indeed, George Washington was president for only a few months when his revolutionary brethren began a divisive brawl over issues that still resonate today—the size of the national debt, the powers of a central bank, and the scope of federal authority.
Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was the instigator: brilliant, indefatigable, and determined to wield the Constitution as a brief for federal power. Hamilton settled the first major controversy, whether the central government should assume the states’ debt, in the crudest of parochial bargains. He bought off wary Virginians, led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Rep. James Madison, with the promise that the new American capital would be built on the Potomac River. Thus was Washington, D.C., born in a base political deal.
In the process, opponents in Congress denounced Hamilton for unleashing a “spirit of havoc, speculation, and ruin.” And when he proposed to create a Bank of the United States, things turned truly ugly.
It was, Jefferson declared, a power grab—a gift to bankers and the wealthy, and a betrayal of revolutionary principles. Congress named a select committee to investigate the Treasury Department. Each side had a Fox News: The Gazette of the United States parroted Hamilton’s line, and The National Gazette was the opposition’s mouthpiece.
Hamilton denounced Jefferson in print as a “voluptuary,” hinting at the Virginian’s rumored liaison with his slave Sally Hemings. A future president, James Monroe, helped spread tales of Hamilton’s dalliances with a 24-year-old married woman, Maria Reynolds. It was the Republic’s first great sex scandal.
“The intellectual caliber of the leading figures surpassed that of any future political leadership in American history,” wrote Washington biographer Ron Chernow. “On the other hand, their animosity toward one another has seldom been exceeded, either.”
So, resist those pundits who wring their hands like Uriah Heep, bemoaning the lack of reasonableness in Washington even as they pocket the fee for their latest calumny. Our politics rests on a foundation of strife, battle, and invective.
“Thus,” the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “has it ever been.”
This article appears in the January 7, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.