It was a training session offered by a statewide governmental association to teach local elected officials how to be better public speakers. As the story was told to me, the instructor began with this advice: "Arrive early for a speech in order to check out the venue, the lighting, the microphone and sound system and, if needed, the laptop for a Power Point presentation. Bring your computer disc or thumb drive and make sure everything works."
The leader was stopped in his tracks when one of the participants in the group spoke up and said, "There's really no need to go on with this part of the instruction. ‘We' get better results when ‘we' go early to sabotage the sound system or Power Point when someone from the opposite party is scheduled to speak." Or words to that effect were spoken, someone who'd been in that training session told me.
Shocked?Yes.Surprised? No. Nothing that happens in current governmental and political debate in this country should surprise me anymore. Yet I was saddened to learn that tactics of national political discourse and campaigning are being practiced at the local level and right here in Newton County, as one official with that experience tells me.
The editor of the AARP Bulletin, Jim Toedtman, writes of spending a week at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., "teaching and listening" to political science and communications students. The students were tasked with closing the budget gap for 2015...a $607 billion deficit in a $4.2 trillion budget. The students found common ground and through a combination of cuts and taxes balanced the budget. No rancor, no name-calling, no stonewalling. They looked at "dozens of budget choices" and succeeded where the Beltway crowd has not. Says Toedtman about the DC crowd, "We're in an era where blind partisanship and selfish special interests have put closing the budget gap beyond reach."
In my career in broadcast news, I worked on and off in Washington from 1961-1983. As an ABC News assignment manager, field producer and senior producer, I covered the president and Congress, as well as the State Department and Pentagon. Never did I witness the harsh and unforgiving tone that reverberates inside and outside the walls of the Capitol today.
Yes, there were Democrats and Republicans in Congress, but enough of them were "statesmen" who understood - far better than today - that "compromise" represented progress and a means to satisfactory resolution of even deeply divisive issues. In fact, a definition of the word "statesman" is "a male political leader regarded as a disinterested promoter of the public good." (My apologies, ladies.) Those who would qualify as "disinterested promoters of the public good" are few and far between today. The public good goes by the wayside. Instead, partisan victory has become so much the goal that brinksmanship defines every day. Call it "Gunfight at the OK Corral."
So when did the tone change? In looking back at the political landscape while practicing my craft from Atlanta, the year 1994 sticks out in my mind as a turning point in the "tone" of political-speak. That's the year the "Contract With America" was created by and successfully implemented by then soon-to-be House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now presidential candidate.
The "Contract" was a political gimmick, a tool, a very smart device created for a political purpose, and it proved instrumental in putting the House in Republican control.
In these bleak times for reasoned and seasoned public discourse and governing, I've identified at least one individual who can be called a "statesman": Georgia's Republican Senior Senator Saxby Chambliss. Chambliss is one of the founders, along with Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, of The Gang of Six, now two Republicans and three Democrats attempting to craft a debt reduction compromise (note the italics). Compromise denotes give-and-take. NOT winner-take-all. Regrettably, one Republican member of the original Gang of Six quit the panel, decrying the ultimate success of any form of compromise to accomplish debt reduction.
The AJC's Marcus J. Garner in a May 16 article, quoted Grover Norquist, founder of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform: "If they put in writing what is actually in the Obama debt-reduction committee's proposal, no Republican senator will sign it, including the three with them."
Well, so much for compromise, it would seem.
Compromise is not a science, but an art. It needs to be practiced, just like the art of painting or playing the guitar.
It's not about winning or losing.
It's about doing the right thing. More people will benefit from solutions reached in compromise than the number who will "win" based on one side killing off the other. Public good must be the goal, not partisan victory.
Bob Furnad is a Covington resident and a former president of CNN Headline News.