Comity Club

Last Friday, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) received the 2003 George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service. The prize is given out annually by the Bush Presidential Library Foundation; according to the Houston Chronicle, an ad hoc committee of the former president's acquaintances had recommended to Bush Senior that Kennedy be nominated for the award. Bush spokesman Jim McGrath said his boss was "immediately supportive," according to the Chronicle.

It could have been an awkward event. After all, Kennedy has been one of the Senate's most aggressive voices in attacking the elder Bush's son, especially on the Iraq War and its aftermath, and he and Bush certainly had their differences when the latter was in office. But Kennedy and Bush joked about the accusations they'd hurled at each other in the past, and both praised the other's commitment to public service.

Such bipartisan comity is rare these days, especially in Washington. Even outside of the nation's capital, there's an anger among voters that's simmering just below the surface. One need look no farther than The New York Times best-seller list for evidence of this partisan mood. Four of the top five hardcover nonfiction books for the week of Nov. 16 have either liberal or conservative themes.

Kennedy, now in his 41st year in the Senate, has been around long enough to know that you have to work with the other side in order to get anything done. He acknowledged that such bipartisanship had been behind the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. "It was as closely as I have ever worked with any president," Kennedy said of his alliance with George W. Bush on the bill.

Don't expect Kennedy to abandon his principles on Iraq or other issues soon. But his eloquent speech on Friday succeeded in making a dig at the current occupant of the White House. While Kennedy and Bush Senior understand the need to work across party lines -- and not vilify the other side in the process -- Bush Junior seems more inclined to see the world in black and white. So Kennedy managed a subtle jab at the son, even as he praised the father. "As [former] President Bush has shown again and again in his lifetime of service," Kennedy said, "we enrich our national dialogue and strengthen our bonds as Americans when we grant the voices of dissent a fair and reasonable hearing."

Too often, however, those voices are being squelched, both within the current administration and on Capitol Hill. While Democrats have usually been the ones frozen out of the process, moderate Republicans have often found their concerns brushed aside, too. Little heed was paid to warnings about Iraq from the non-neocons at the State Department. Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal called Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) a "Daschle Republican" for insisting that Bush's tax cut be limited to a mere $350 billion.

In the House, Republicans have frequently taken a "my way or the highway" approach in recent years. As Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told me earlier this year, "The House of Representatives is not in any way a deliberative body anymore." When Democrats raise objections to bills, they're labeled obstructionists -- even though that's the proper role of the minority party, and even though Republicans did the exact same thing during their 40 years out of power in the House.

What's more, the Bush administration has sought to create a political dialogue -- or lack thereof -- where criticism of the president or his policies is considered out of bounds. When Kennedy said earlier this year that American troops are dying because the administration "failed to prepare a plan to win the peace," the president called the comments "uncivil" and Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) said they demonstrated "recklessness." But as Kennedy said Friday, "True love of country does not mean that we all must agree all the time, or that those who disagree with us love their country any less. True love of country is a commitment to the processes of democracy, unruly as it sometimes is." In other words, loving your country means recognizing the need to freely express different viewpoints without fear that you'll be labeled unpatriotic if you disagree with the commander in chief or the majority party -- even during wartime. Bush Senior was no doubt displeased that many Democratic senators -- including Kennedy -- opposed the Gulf War. It's hard to imagine Bush's son singling out for a public-service award any of the senators who opposed his war in Iraq.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.