Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Wherever one stands on the health care debate, and on Senator Snowe's decision, it is misleading to call this week's tokenism bipartisanship. True bipartisanship means working together, building bridges, finding common interests, forging consensus. Bipartisanship is Republicans and Democrats spurred by the graciousness of John McCain and Barack Obama, celebrating the election of the first African-American President last November. Bipartisanship is McCain and 13 other centrist Senators creating a"Gang of Fourteen" to approve Republican judicial nominations so as to head off the"nuclear option" threatening Senate prerogatives Democrats were enjoying. And bipartisanship is the shared feelings of mourning mingled with patriotism after 9/11, epitomized by dozens of tearful, subdued members of Congress spontaneously singing"God Bless America" on the Capitol steps hours after the downing of Flight 93, which may have been targeting that very site.
Historically, true bipartisanship occurred when righteous renegades or statesmanlike party leaders led others to create a broad coalition, even if reluctantly. Back in 1964, Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois, the Senate Minority Leader, was the key figure in breaking the 83-day filibuster against the landmark Civil Rights Bill. President Lyndon Johnson gave Senator Dirksen his famous"treatment," understanding the secret formula for Congressional cajolery: one part flattery, one part bribery, leavened by a sense of history. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, deployed by Johnson as point man, recalled wooing Dirksen aggressively but elegantly:"I began a public massage of his ego, and appealed to his vanity. I said he should look at this issue as 'a moral issue, not a partisan one.' The gentle pressure left room for him to be the historically important figure in our struggle, the statesman above bipartisanship…." More crassly, Humphrey admitted he even would have been willing to kiss"Dirksen's ass on the Capitol steps."
Humphrey finally succeeded without going that far. Dirksen broke the filibuster, quoting Victor Hugo:"Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come. The time has come for equality … in education and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied it is here." The cloture vote passed with a surprisingly wide margin of 71 to 29. When asked how he became a force pushing for civil rights Dirksen grandly replied,"I am involved in mankind, and whatever the skin, we are all included in mankind."
Dirksen's sense of history made him immortal - they named a Senate Office building after him, among other things. Moreover he saved the Republican Party. Today, whatever else their standing with African-Americans may be at any particular moment, Republicans can say with pride that they helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights bill, thanks to Everett Dirksen.
Similarly, in the 1940s, Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg helped lead his party and the nation away from a pinched, provincial, isolationism. President Harry Truman could construct his emerging Cold War foreign policy as bipartisan, thanks especially to Vandenberg. On Friday, April 13, 1945, his first full day in office, Truman lunched with seventeen congressional leaders. Vandenberg hailed this unprecedented move for ending Franklin Roosevelt's era of presidential unilateralism. Vandenberg's pronouncement that"politics stops at the water's edge" built popular consensus behind America's containment strategy. Vandenberg remained a Republican and occasionally contradicted the President, saying that frank exchanges facilitated true unity. The senator saw himself leading the"loyal opposition" putting"national security ahead of partisan advantage."
Senator Vandenberg's journey from ardent partisan isolationist to leading bipartisan interventionist reflected the massive ideological shift Franklin Roosevelt facilitated, and Harry Truman completed. Vandenberg's rift with the Republican isolationists underlined the continuing American resistance to becoming a world superpower. America did not even have a standing army. Many isolationists such as"Mr. Republican," Ohio Senator Robert Taft, reluctantly accepted the fight against fascism but hoped returning to normalcy included restoring America's characteristic insulation.
Facing a divided country and a treacherous world, Truman crusaded for cooperation. In his first speech to Congress, on April 16, 1945, Truman said only"a united nation deeply devoted to the highest ideals" could provide the"enlightened leadership" the world needed. This strategy, and both Vandenberg's and Truman's good works, were vindicated repeatedly, culminating with Soviet Communism's collapse, which historians credit as a bipartisan victory.
By contrast, a century earlier the"Compromise of 1850" was not much of a compromise -- or too much of a compromise. No one was happy. Henry Clay's nationalist attempt to craft an omnibus package had failed, rejected in the summer of 1850. The legislation passed - but ultimately failed - because the young Democratic Senator from Illinois Stephen A. Douglas crafted a series of shifting congressional coalitions passing individual parts of the legislation, reflecting sectional differences not national concerns. Southerners supported the individual planks which pleased Southerners, while Northern representatives endorsed the pro-Northern legislation. There was no reconciliation, legislative or otherwise. The misnamed Compromise of 1850 failed to find common ground or common terms, the essential elements of bipartisanship. In playing to sectional differences not splitting the difference, the Compromise spread the pain without consolidating any gain.
Senators Dirksen and Vandenberg made history because they were not renegades but pioneers, leading their reluctant, partisan followers across the Red Sea to the promised land of bipartisanship to benefit America. Presidents Johnson and Truman - with assists from Vice President Hubert Humphrey, among others -- understood that bipartisanship is not about luring one or two mavericks across the aisle, but convincing a broad swath of citizens and leaders that change is coming, and better to be on the right side of history.
As liberals rejoice in Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize and conservatives grumble, let's be honest: It is too early too tell. Awarding this prize either may be prescient or premature. Regardless, the award reflects the noble aspirations of the award committee and the prize winner.
The committee beautifully described Mr. Obama's greatest accomplishment thus far. “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the citation says. The fact that despite its racist past, despite the stains of slavery and Jim Crow, the United States sent a black man to the White House was a modern miracle. That this President was only 47 when elected, and had, by his own description, a “funny name,” is even more amazing especially following 9/11.
Mr. Obama's election in November, 2008, and his inauguration in 2009 bequeathed to the world two magical moments. On election night, the tears streaming down black and white faces the world over said it all. At the inauguration, the iconography was extraordinary. There was the defining image from the 2008 campaign of a thoughtful, messianic Mr. Obama looking off into the distance, with the four-letter word HOPE emblazoned in light blue on a black and red background. There were drawings of Mr. Obama surrounded by ghosts of African-Americans past, the trailblazers ranging from secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to the first serious black presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm.
Images juxtaposed Mr. Obama with Martin Luther King, linking the August, 1963, March on Washington that filled the Mall from the Lincoln Monument with the January, 2009, Obama inauguration that filled the Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Monument. Some artists depicted Barack and Michelle Obama as the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten – King Tut's father – and his Chief Consort Nefertiti.
There were slogans galore: “Yes We Did,” “A Legacy of Hope,” “the Healing Process Has Begun,” and “Thank you Jesus, We Never Would Have Made it Without You.”
Since then, such images and slogans have filled our global village. I have seen home shrines to Mr. Obama in Chateguay and have heard of elaborate shrines in huts in Kenya. During this dark recession year, America's single greatest export has been the hope Mr. Obama transmitted to billions of the disillusioned, the oppressed, the discriminated against throughout the world. This achievement alone deserves a Nobel.
Alas, even with Mr. Obama in office, the world is menaced by ignoble characters who disdain his noble aspirations. The jury is still out whether Mr. Obama's politics of hope and diplomacy of engagement can work in a world of al-Qaeda killers, North Korean dictators, Iranian madmen, Iraqi insurgents, Taliban fanatics, Afghan warlords, Pakistani generals, Russian strongmen, Saudi Sheiks, Sudanese slaughterers, Guinean rapists and Hamas terrorists.
So far, there have been no major disasters on Mr. Obama's watch – but no major successes either. North Korea and Iran continue to develop nuclear power: North Korea launched missiles on July 4 to defy Mr. Obama, while Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole an election and cracked down on democratic forces with barely a peep from the U.S. President. Mr. Obama has kept pressing al-Qaeda with drone attacks, the Taliban with talk of more troops, Iraqi anarchists by refusing to withdraw precipitously.
But the Russians seem to think he can be pushed around, horrific crimes like the mass murder in Darfur and the mass military rapes of opposition protesters in Guinea continue to occur (inevitably, alas). And in a striking, but characteristic contrast from the Middle East, this week, Prof. Ada Yonath won Israel's ninth Nobel prize – and the first chemistry Nobel for a woman since 1964 – even as Hamas and other Palestinian agitators called for violence in Jerusalem.
The contrast between noble societies that invest in science and ignoble societies addicted to terror, between noble political cultures that produce hope-generators like Barack Obama and ignoble political cultures that produce mass killers, remains stunning – and daunting.
Good people throughout the world should unite in hoping that the aspirations embedded in this award to a rookie President quickly transform into impressive achievements. Thus far, Mr. Obama has dazzled the world with his poetry. Let us hope that when we look back on this moment, his Nobel prize will be a milestone in his ability to turn his transcendent poetry into workable, governable prose, the hopes into feats, and, nations' swords into plowshares.