Maybe it’s difficult in the America of 2019 to remember that this country has been through seasons of political convulsions and deep divisions before.
Those old enough to remember the 1960s and 1970s also could make a case that the country seemed to be falling apart. There was war in Vietnam — we were losing — and an increasingly troubled economic situation, with budget deficits and problems for consumers at the gas pump and for workers on picket lines.
In those times, there were also instances of bitterness among political figures that make today’s criticisms between President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seem tame, at least sometimes.
There was also a transition within the parties, particularly in the U.S. House of Representatives. A younger Republican leader was Gerald Ford of Michigan, who was elected to the leadership with the agenda of making things tougher on the majority Democrats.
That was of course often difficult, since the Democratic leader was a tough and shrewd New Orleans lawyer named Hale Boggs. Their duels were at least as sharp as those that today make headlines from the House chamber.
What frequently happened though, is that once the legislative business of the day was concluded, the two men would meet privately and more amicably to resolve disputes and seek, even if deeply divided ideologically, to make the lawmaking process work.
Can we still disagree without being so disagreeable? The late Cokie Roberts recalls what happened in 1972, at the height of a big election year, after reports that her father’s airplane was lost in Alaska.
“The first people to come in our door were Jerry and Betty Ford,” she remembered long after. It was a great comfort to her and to her mother Lindy Boggs, later to become a legislative legend in the House after succeeding her husband.
The family friendship continued, as Cokie Roberts worked for years with the Betty Ford Foundation in its campaign against drug addiction.
Even with divisive politics, there was common purpose.
Things have clearly changed. The death of Roberts, a liberal commentator for National Public Radio, was greeted ungraciously by the sitting president, even if the loss of one of New Orleans’ own was deeply felt here in Louisiana.
Today, maybe there is still some decency to be had, for formalities like a presidential funeral for George H.W. Bush. But the intimate friendships that crossed party lines and survived heated debates on the House floor seem lost.