Yesterday, the funeral of Mario Lague in Montreal, while enormously sad, was also a chance to bask a bit more in political civility that has become increasingly rare in Ottawa. I was heartened to see the Prime Minister's communications director, Dimitri Soudas, at the funeral, as well as the New Democrats' communications chief, Brad Lavigne and NDP chief of staff Anne McGrath. "How could we not be here?" Lavigne said. It was also good to see fellow journalists like Paul Wells and former journalists such as Rosemary Thompson there. It meant a lot to the family, I'm told.
On the way home on the train, I read a piece in Vanity Fair's new, September, issue, which only reminded me of the sharp discrepancy between the real world (where people generally try to be decent to each other) and the daily political circus. "Broken Washington" is a sobering read. It is descriptive rather than prescriptive, but it's vivid in the telling of how politics, political journalism and the lobbying business are enmeshed in a web of near-total dysfunction in the U.S. capital. It left me thinking that Ottawa is not that bad (thank goodness), but it could be. Some paragraphs that jumped out:
Those are just a taste of what the article contains; not really doing justice to the overall piece. I'd call it a must-read for political junkies; probably of the cautionary sort.
It could be argued that the level of congressional discourse has gone steadily downhill since 1789. “My esteemed colleague” has often been polite code for “You son of a bitch.” The sometimes cynical rules of engagement are well understood. Nearly 50 years ago, in the movie version of Allen Drury’s novel Advise and Consent, one character tells a child to lie to a senator who has called to ask if he was home. “Son, this is a Washington, D.C., kind of lie—that’s when the other person knows you’re lying, and also knows you know he knows.” But the partisan calumny and contempt in Washington are today all-consuming. When the Republican Scott Brown was elected to fill the unexpired Massachusetts Senate seat that had been held for 47 years by Ted Kennedy, not a single Republican senator bothered to come to the floor to hear the farewell speech of Kennedy’s interim successor, Paul Kirk—as if to snub the very idea of friendships and alliances across the aisle that Kennedy himself had nurtured. Democrats and Republicans in Congress now vote against one another more regularly than at any time since Reconstruction.
The big worry is not a threat from the other party but a primary challenge from the extreme fringe of your own party—that is, from someone who doesn’t think you’re red enough or blue enough. As a result, the basic mechanics of the electoral process act to harden ideology and to punish statesmanship.
Now, thanks to cable, the Internet, Twitter, and Facebook, there is no such thing as a “news cycle” in Washington—only one endless, undifferentiated full-color stream of fact, opinion, and attitudinizing, where lies and misinformation flourish equally with truth. It used to be that news outlets had space to report or comment on only a fraction of any day’s events. The pace of events has picked up, sure, but the capacity to assert, allege, and comment is now infinite, and subject to little responsible control. The White House communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, still has a BlackBerry alert to tell him when The Washington Post and The New York Times have gone live online with their next day’s stories, but this is almost an antique holdover, given that any blogger at any moment can generate a story that forces the White House to respond. “What they teach you on the first day of press-secretary school is to worry about blowing something up by giving attention to it,” Pfeiffer told me this spring. “‘Don’t blow something up!’” But today, he says, there’s no choice—the story will get blown up anyway, and you simply have to respond.