Once, when Ronald Reagan was president, I was one of a group of writers and editors who were invited to lunch at the White House. The president wasn’t craving our company.
He was trying to gain public support for a new and controversial defense program. I was not in favor of that particular program, and hadn’t voted for President Reagan. Still, it would never have occurred to me to turn down an invitation to meet the president, or any president, no matter what their policies.
Whatever else you may think of any individual, the president of the United States is the freely elected leader of this nation, and a symbolic representative of the country, and this democracy.
Throughout our history, most people have felt that way. But apparently, not anymore. Last Friday, President Obama came to Michigan State University to sign the new farm bill, which is one of the rare truly bipartisan pieces of legislation in recent years.
But though at least two dozen Republicans were invited to the bill signing, none of them showed up. Not Gov. Rick Snyder, not Speaker of the House John Boehner or any ranking Republican on either the House or Senate Agriculture Committees.
Most Michigan farmers are represented by Republicans in Congress, but none of this state’s nine GOP congressmen were there either. When Air Force One landed, the only official who showed up to greet the president was Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.
I think there is something deeply wrong with that, and would feel the same way if the president were a Republican and every Democrat in the state failed to show up.
This was not a campaign trip. Not only is the president not running for reelection, he can’t ever run again. Nor is the president in any kind of impeachment-worthy legal or ethical trouble, or a pariah here. He won Michigan by margins considerably larger than his national average in both his campaigns.
Politics in a democracy depends on a certain level of civility. My congressman when I was growing up was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican named Bill Broomfield from Oakland County.
He served 35 years in the House and rose to become ranking minority member on the Foreign Relations Committee, retiring just before his party took back the House. Broomfield saw his job as trying to get things done through bipartisan consensus.
He served during four Republican and three Democratic administrations. Ten years ago, I had a long chat with him in which he told me, “I can honestly say I liked working with all the presidents.” He told me he still cherished letters from all of them, and refused to say which one had been his favorite.
Broomfield is almost 92 now, and in frail health, but I have to think he would have been appalled by his successors’ failure to show up to greet the president. When I last talked with him, he told me that he felt not having “a spirit of bipartisanship hurts us a lot.”
He added, “The idea that one party can do everything on these complicated issues doesn’t make sense.” You don’t have to be a political scientist to think we’d be better off with more of that spirit in Washington today.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org.