#20: Reaching Across the Aisle: A Cough Drop at a Funeral, Cornering an Irishman in the Oval Office, and Scalia/Ginsburg, the Opera
In a pandemic, one would think our country would come together, knowing we battle a common enemy. We have not. Paradoxically, the United States has become more and more divided. There is a real sense of us and them, seeping from politics into our personal lives. We forget the United States has had gaping divisions in the past and managed to bridge many of them. It started with individuals having profound differences of opinion, doing the hard work, and finding a way to get things done. Some of these former adversaries even became friends.
Abraham Lincoln and his "Team of Rivals"
The 1860 election between William H. Seward, Edward Bates, Salmon P. Chase, and Abraham Lincoln was a bitter battle documented beautifully in Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals. Lincoln, knowing of the deep divisions in the country, brought his opponents together to form an unprecedented cabinet. He wanted a deeper understanding of their diverging ideas, and knew embracing their differences rather than openly opposing them, would work toward uniting the country. William Seward, one of his most staunch foes, became his Secretary of State, a trusted advisor, and with time, a dear friend.
Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill
During republican Ronald Reagan's presidency, Tip O'Neill was the democratic Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi's role now). Although passionately opposed politically, they found commonalities and a way to work together. Reagan quipped, "Imagine one Irishman trying to corner another Irishman in the Oval Office." Regarding Reagan, O'Neill said, "That's just politics, after 6 o'clock we're buddies–we're friends." And if not friends, they did know the importance of getting along. Frequently they went out for a beer after an especially difficult day, and there are pictures of them celebrating their Irish roots on St. Patrick's Day. After the assassination attempt in 1981, Tip O'Neill visited Reagan in the hospital. Finding him in worse shape than previously reported and sharing a common faith, they recited the Lord's Prayer. During their tenure, they worked to end the Cold War, pass tax reform, stop the violence in Northern Ireland, and create immigration reform.
Bill Clinton and George Bush, Sr.
Bill Clinton and George Bush, Sr. battled each other in the fierce 1992 presidential election. Bill Clinton won, effectively making George Bush, Sr. a one-term president, something he never got over. Twelve years later, after the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, President George W. Bush, Jr. tasked former opponents and presidents, Clinton and Bush, Sr. with leading a disaster relief team. Both men thrived in their new roles, spending a great deal of time together, learning of unexpected shared values, and becoming good friends. After their joint venture, they visited each other's homes, played golf, and traveled together. Barbara Bush called them the "odd couple," and George Bush, Jr. joked, after Clinton's surgery, he "woke up surrounded by his loved ones: Hillary, Chelsea...and my Dad." When asked about their relationship, Clinton responded, "I think people see George and me and they say, 'That is the way our country ought to work.'"
George W. Bush and Michelle Obama
At John McCann's funeral, George Bush, Jr. was famously photographed handing Michelle Obama a cough drop. In a political climate where the public is hungry for politicians reaching across the aisle, this moment captured everyone's imagination. On NBC's Today Show, Michelle Obama said, "I didn't realize at the time that anybody noticed what we were doing. President Bush and I… we are forever seatmates because of protocol…So we're together all the time, and I love him to death. He's a wonderful man. He's a funny man." Bush jested, "She kind of likes my sense of humor. Anybody who likes my sense of humor, I immediately like."
Now the media purposely tails them, attempting to capture a little more of their unusual connection. Pictures spanning the internet
show them hugging, laughing, sharing those iconic cough drops, and demonstrating Americans with strong opposing political views can still be friends.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia
During their tenures, Antonin Scalia was one one of the most conservative supreme court justices, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, one of the most liberal. Somehow, these polar opposites became friends.
There are pictures of them riding an elephant in India together, attending the opera, and their families celebrating the holidays. There is even an opera, receiving rave reviews, chronicling their improbable friendship: Scalia/Ginsburg. The tagline for the production is: We are different. We are one.
For the most part, both sides of the aisle love their children, want the best for our country, and would help others, no matter what party, in a catastrophe. Can't we remember this?
Reaching across the aisle, in these troubled times, is part of a Life Well-Lived.
P.S. I have gotten lost in the videos of past presidents at their library dedications. They talk about each other's successes and joke about their own failures. It is refreshing and even healing. A great book to learn more about presidential friendships is The Presidents Club. (I was surprised by the relationship between Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton!)
M.J. Minerman writes for spinsters around the world who have "not found their lids and are pursuing lives well-lived."