An Island Of Civility

October 19, 2012

Last night Mitt Romney said something nice about President Obama.

He called the president “gracious.” He also told his listeners not to tell anybody he said that.

Amazingly enough, the president also said nice things about Romney. He praise Romney as a great family man.

Are these the same guys who kept interrupting each other the other night at their second debate?

Yes, they’re the same. But last night Obama and Romney had dinner together in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. They were the guests of honor at the annual Al Smith Dinner, sponsored by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York and named in honor of the first Roman Catholic to be nominated for president by a major party. (Smith, a Democrat, lost to Herbert Hoover in 1928)

It’s something of a tradition for the two opposing candidates to come together in New York for the Smith dinner. The emphasis is on civility and humor. Both candidates did well. They charmed an audience of more than 1,000 people with one-liners making fun of themselves and making an occasional political point.

But the real story was out of sight of the C-SPAN cameras that were on hand. Before the speeches. I saw Republicans and Democrats and union leaders and business tycoons all mixing it up, talking to each other rather than at each other.

That doesn’t happen very often any more. Not so long ago, a Republican president (Ronald Reagan) used to have the Democratic speaker of the House (Tip O’Neill) over to the White House for a drink every week or so.

That kind of friendship crossing party lines simply doesn’t happen anymore. And that’s why our political system is so dysfunctional. Political leaders see their opposition as abstractions rather than real people.

But on this night in New York, anyway, people with different views and different agenda were speaking with each other. They were laughing. They were smiling.

They seemed to enjoy each other’s company.

Too bad that seems to happen only once a year, at a very special dinner in New York.