Do you remember the good old days? Yeah, there never were any good old days. Everything has always been a struggle, leadership has never really been what the legends tell us, and people have always been just people. Yet in narrow little areas it’s sometimes possible to look back and find that maybe we didn’t know just how good we had it. I was going to write a piece called “Where have all the good Republicans gone?” but somehow Tip O’Neill’s book “All Politics is Local” was calling to me instead. No, I’m not going to dump on Republicans here. We’re all bad.
Nostalgia is rarely productive. We tend to remember the times when we were kids well because we had everything taken care for us by the adults in our lives. Few of us can look back further than that because we’re all blinded by bright sunny days spent lazily playing with our friends knowing for sure that they’d never end. Yet hearing what passes for political rhetoric lately suggested that there was something better before. A trip to my bookshelf proved it.
Tip O’Neill was the speaker of the US House back in the 1980s. An old Irish gentleman from Boston, he was the icon of everything that was wrong with the Democrats, if you were a Republican. Many Democrats wondered why we had someone so old running our show – Tip was no hardcore progressive, after all. He was a tough man who knew the art of the deal and how to get things done. You just don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
I’ll let him tell this story, directly from “All Politics is Local.” The year is 1953, and Tip was first elected to Congress:
“(Speaker of the House) Rayburn … talked about President Eisenhower. ‘A military leader,’ he said of Ike, ‘is accustomed to giving orders and getting them carried out. He has no political, legislative, or business experience. He’s an American hero elected in a democratic election and treading on new fields. He’ll need our help. Remember that we are Americans first and Democrats second.'”
If you can imagine anyone in any party saying that today you are far more idealistic than I am.
The real truth of the situation we are in today is that we once had decent, practical politicians who honestly were there to serve to the best of their ability. O’Neill’s book has very few comments on policy in it, but is instead a primer on how to get things done. Those of us who remember him can’t possibly be surprised at this, but we should at least have the decency to remember that it was once this way. We stopped electing people like this long ago – this is a Democratic Republic, after all, and I am sure that we have the government we deserve.
I want to offer his “Political Checklist” to a new generation, knowing full well that most of it will simply go over the heads of our supposed “leadership.”
1. It’s a round world – what goes around, comes around.
2. You can accomplish anything if you’re willing to let someone else take the credit.
3. Never lose your idealism.
4. Lead by consent, not demand.
5. You can switch a position, but do it quickly and openly.
6. Learn to say, “I don’t know, but I will find out.”
7. KISS – Keep it simple, stupid.
8. Never speak of yourself in the third person.
9. Tell the truth the first time and you don’t have to remember what you said.
10. No chore is too small.
You might say to yourself, “How does this get the starving fed, advance justice, or create world peace?” The answer is a simple one: through competence. Everyone has a cause or two that they believe in – or else they have little interest in politics altogether. If you want to advance those causes, you have to start with what matters in politics – defined either as the operating system of a Democratic Republic or the art and science of human interaction. It’s all about getting things done.
So I won’t dump on Republicans. I will, instead, offer any of my conservative friends my copy of “All Politics is Local” as a loaner on two conditions – you get it back to me (it’s a very quick read) and you promise to have a long chat with me afterwards about the book. I think you’ll find we all have a lot in common.