Evanston RoundTable, Sept. 20, 2018
Imagine that the presidency, instead of being a four-year term, rotates among common citizens. Everyone gets to be the chief executive for 24 hours. And today is your turn. What would you do? Here’s a speech draft you can use to address a joint session of Congress.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have only one goal, and that is to change the way you think about your job. Let me start by telling you what it is not. Your job is not a vehicle to keep yourself permanently in office. It is not a path to power and perquisites. And it’s not a platform to preach exclusively to your base (one definition of which is: mean, low, common) and promote one-sided and self-interested party politics.
“What it is, in fact, is a privilege. Being elected to Congress is one of the greatest gifts your fellow citizens can bestow on you. Because in a republican form of government, you represent all of us. You are our voice and vehicle to get things done.
“By ‘our’ I mean everyone in your district—red and blue, Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, centrist and fringe. Reconciling those disparate viewpoints may seem impossible, but it can be done.
“That was the dream of George Washington, who despised factions, calling them ‘a frightful despotism.’ That was the lesson of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, political rivals as young men who later become the best of friends. That is what we the people expect of you: to be civil, to cooperate and to achieve something meaningful.
In that regard it might be instructive to listen to a conversation on June 23, 1964, between President Johnson and Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, the feisty, gravel-voiced Republican Party leader from Pekin, Illinois. (The actual phone call, along with many others taped while Johnson was in office, can be heard online and at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.) Dirksen asked LBJ’s help funding a river project in southern Illinois. LBJ told Dirksen he needed his help on a budget bill. Within three minutes, they had an understanding.
“That is historically how legislative work got done, through compromise, from two masters of the art.
“Of course, what is incumbent on you as our legislators is also incumbent on us as citizens. So I’d like to ask everyone, Members of Congress and fellow citizens alike, to step across the aisle and shake hands and sit down with your opposite number—someone you don’t usually agree or associate with. Talk about your hopes and fears for this wonderful land. Get past your slogans and shibboleths and pieties. Most of all, listen. Listen hard and with your whole mind and heart, without any preconceptions or knee-jerk judgments.
“Because at the end of the day, we are all here—whether in Washington or Evanston—for the same reason: to help make our communities and our country and our world a better place.
“Thank you very much.”