No Rancor Here, Just Civility

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Is courtesy a thing of the past?

After reading – and thoroughly enjoying – Micheline Maynard’s article in Medium (April 22) about the photo of the former presidents and first ladies laughing together at Barbara Bush’s funeral, I, too felt nostalgia for the “good ol’ days.” Maynard refers to the times when Republicans and Democrats, after debating fiercely on opposite sides of an issue in the halls of Congress, would meet for a friendly dinner at a local restaurant and catch up on family and friends.

I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, thirteen miles from Capitol Hill, and as a young woman I worked downtown in the lobbying office of a power utility. I covered hearings, committee meetings and listened to arguments on both sides. The industry and government lawyers would pontificate, using huge multi-syllabic phrases of jargon known only to insiders, while congressional members would make huge efforts to sound knowledgeable and relevant in the discussions. All was polite and courteous.

Back in those days, there were other ways for lobbyists to get their message to a member of congress. Lobbyists could ply members with invitations to lunch, play at the best golf courses, attend ball games, or share theatre tickets to the latest offerings at the Kennedy Center. There the lobbyist would engage the member in short discussions concerning the issue at hand, with the solace of enjoyable entertainment in the background.

Lunch and dinner tabs were picked up on a regular basis in order to have a few moments in private with a legislator who didn’t fully understand the impact a piece of legislation would have on our particular industry. What we were purchasing was access, always access, to a legislator or committee member whose workday consisted of one meeting after another.

I remember listening to House Speaker Tip O’Neill sing bawdy Irish songs with then-Rep. Richard Conte and Rep. Bob Michel at a campaign bash in the Botanical Gardens, their voices and laughter ringing throughout the palm trees and hothouse flowers. Those gentlemen were not all of the same political affiliation, but they were friends anyway. It was understood that all members were Americans, united for one purpose: to pass legislation that would benefit their part of the country, without the public rancor or personal attacks that have become as commonplace as straw wrappers on the National Mall.

I read that the greatest difference between eastern and western cultures is Western culture emphasizes competition between each other to get ahead, sometimes tearing one another down in order to build ourselves up, while eastern cultures embrace one another’s ambitions and honor those who raise the bar for everyone. Certainly food for thought.

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