John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Old School is Out Forever

Posted on August 13, 2010

Dan Rostenkowski, former Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee



This has been a bad year for old school politicians.

This week, in particular, has been devastating for those of us who have great affection for the political professionals of the past.

Ted Stevens died in a plane crash and a day later, Dan Rostenkowski, the former Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, died of natural causes.

Stevens and Rostenkowski were mirror images of one another.  Both were gruff, both were powerful, both were effective advocates for their constituents, and both counted close friends on either side of the political chasm.

And, of course, both ran afoul of a changing ethics landscape.

Stevens and Rostenkowski are only the latest of the old guard to die this year.  Robert Byrd, Jack Murtha, and Ted Kennedy, all legendary figures of the Congress also passed on to their greater reward.

These old school politicians not only represented a different era in the Congress.  They represented a different era of the country.

It is hard to imagine any of these old school politicians pouring over poll numbers to figure out what was going on in their districts or states.  In the old days, you would pick up the phone and talk to the ten, fifteen or twenty community leaders to get the straight skinny on what was happening back home.

But things change.  Community leaders are probably just as clueless about what is happening back home as the politicians in Washington, because we don’t have community leaders like we used to.  As the Robert Putnam put it, we don’t bowl in leagues anymore.  We bowl alone.

Cable television abhors old-school politicians who can’t speak in sound bites and who have faces better fit for radio.  The daily combat of talk show hosts who either have never spent a day working in Congress or the White House or if they have forgot about what they learned there serves to undermine trust of the political class and confidence in our system of government.  We watch at home with a strange mix of fascination and horror, wondering who in Washington is listening to us?

As our sense of isolation increases, with our big screen televisions and our mini-mansions, so does our sense of distrust.  We are spooked by the different reports of child abductions (although the vast majority of child abductions are custody dispute cases), so we don’t let our kids play alone.  We work so hard (if we are lucky enough to have a job) we don’t have time to join the local Knights of Columbus or the bowling league.  We spend hours commuting and the hours we aren’t stuck in the car going back and forth to work, we are taking our kids to various soccer, baseball, cheerleading or other practices.  Churches are not just churches anymore, but they have to be “mega-churches”, and invariably, those that run the churches preach an ersatz “prosperity” gospel, that vaguely promise a bit of heaven on earth for just the right donation.

In this era of isolation and distrust, old school politicians like Dan Rostenkowski and Ted Stevens, and Jack Murtha and the rest of them, couldn’t well operate.  They cut deals with the other side of the aisle, and yes, sometimes they used a little grease to cut those deals.  They had the interests of the constituents in their minds primarily, but sometimes those interests may have coincided with personal interests.  They served their country admirably, but over a long career, any politician worth his salt will create enemies, and eventually, those enemies add up.  Old School politicians would never think to boil all of their thoughts into a 140 character tweet.  In fact, in the old school of politics, it was far better not to put anything in writing.

But in this new era of politics, you have to keep in constant contact with your constituents.  You need to use all of the tools of the Internet to figure out where the wave is coming and ride it (or at least avoid getting crushed by it).  You have to poll constantly, because it is hard to discern the sentiments of an electorate that could sweep in Barack Obama two shorts years ago, and sweep out most his Congressional supporters three months from now.  And you have to be careful what you say and what you do in this merciless era of the 24 hour news cycle, a new cycle that is always looking for fresh meat to cook.

In any event, we are at the end of an era in politics, and this week, that end was signified with an exclamation point.  There is a great line in one of my favorite John Wayne movies, “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon.”  The bartender says to Sergeant Quincannon:  “The old days.  They are gone forever.”  So true, and with the deaths of Rosty and Stevens this week, and the deaths of Byrd, Kennedy, and Murtha earlier this week, the old school is out forever.