Remembering leaders who put country above party
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Today’s Congress is so starkly divided along party lines, it’s hard to imagine a time when legislators worked together on a regular basis—co-sponsoring bills and compromising with the other party to pass crucial legislation. As the impeachment inquiry threatens to harden party divisions even further, now may be a good time to remember those congressional alumni whose bipartisanship and courage made us better as a nation.

On June 1, 1950, as McCarthyism began to divide Congress and America, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, issued her “Declaration of Conscience,” asking for bipartisan cooperation to protect national security. “It is high time that we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections,” she said, “and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom.”

The joint efforts of Sen. Richard G. Lugar, a Republican from Indiana, and Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, helped bring about the deactivation of thousands of nuclear and chemical weapons left over from the Cold War. After he left Congress, Lugar established the Lugar Center, a think tank dedicated to good governance and bipartisanship. Nunn still serves as co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonpartisan organization he co-founded in 2001 that fights the use and spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Rep. Barbara Jordan, a Texas Democrat and civil rights leader, supported a wide range of Democratic causes but wasn’t afraid to break ranks with traditional party thinking. As the chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform from 1994 until her death in 1996, Jordan favored more controls on immigration, including increased enforcement against illegal immigrants and their employers. 

President Gerald Ford, who died in 2006, was a moderate Republican who was known for bipartisan leadership throughout his 25 years in the House. Ford stoked controversy when he pardoned Richard Nixon but did what he thought was best for the nation to bring about internal peace; his own political career suffered as a result. Ford received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award.

Sen. Philip Hart, a Michigan Democrat known—by both parties—as the “Conscience of the Senate,” was a World War II combat veteran who championed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. Hart was respected for standing up for what he believed was right, rather than what was politically expedient.

A pragmatic and independent senator who often broke ranks with her party was Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Maine. She served as co-chair of the Senate Centrist Coalition, a bipartisan group. “We can have our differences here, but we ought to be able to talk with each other without being punished for it,” Snowe said in 2001.

Also not a fan of political polarization was the late Sen. Mike Mansfield, a Montana Democrat. He believed moderation was often the best way to win in any arena. In a New York Times interview at the age of 95, he said, “Differences can be bridged, solutions can be found, concessions can be made. It's much better to take an inch than to take nothing at all.”

New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm, who died in 2005, was known to criticize Democratic and Republican congressional leaders alike. Chisholm also defended to fellow African-Americans the need to work with white politicians to get things done. “We still have to engage in compromise,” Chisholm said, “the highest of all arts.”

Finally, Republican Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCummings to lie in state at the Capitol Elizabeth Warren should concern Donald Trump 'bigly' Lawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show MORE, who died last year, criticized his party and president on several issues, spoke out for civility, and also maintained close friendships with Democrats such as Ted Kennedy. Today McCain’s family carries on his spirit of bipartisanship through a social media and action campaign called #ActsOfCivility. McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, urges on the website, johnmccain.com: “Commit to something larger than yourself. Reach across the aisle. Break the barrier. Come together for civil engagement.” Wise words indeed. And sorely needed ones.

Ritch K. Eich, former chief of public affairs for Blue Shield of California, has published four books on leadership. A retired captain in the naval reserve, he served on Congressional committees for Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Dan Coats of Indiana. He holds a Ph.D from the University of Michigan.