Tom Daschle and Trent Lott would seem to be unlikely allies.
Daschle, an Aberdeen native who represented South Dakota in Congress for 26 years, is a liberal Democrat, a friend and mentor of President Barack Obama. Lott is a Mississippi Republican with conservative views who was in Congress for more than 35 years.
Both served as Senate leaders, both in the majority and minority roles, starting in the mid-1990s. Although their political ideas varied, they were also determined to get bills passed and move the country forward. That no longer seems to be the primary goal in Congress, and that disappoints them.
The former senators have co-authored a new book, “Crisis Point: Why We Must — and How We Can — Overcome Our Broken Politics in Washington and Across America.”
Daschle, whom I have known and interviewed since 1979, offered a few reasons why they felt the need to make this case.
"We wrote the book because we believe we have reached a 'crisis point' with the level of dysfunction in Washington," Daschle said Friday. "We are deeply concerned about the quality of governance and the long-term survivability of our institutions of government under current circumstances.
"We need Congressional reform, electoral reform, and a greater commitment on the part of the American people to rebuild and strengthen our democratic republic. Our book provides some ideas on how we could do that."
They state the case quite frankly, as this excerpt shows:
"Our system of checks and balances was not designed to encourage the kind of inertia plaguing our current leaders in Washington. The quality of our United States Congress — and, by extension, the American government — continues to grow increasingly dysfunctional. As former legislators, Senate leaders, and concerned citizens, we are alarmed."
They didn't write this book to make money. Both are successful lobbyists, raking in millions. They didn't need the spotlight; they had that for more than two decades.
They are now elder statesmen — Lott is 74, Daschle, 68 — who have run their last campaigns (although Daschle is younger than presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, whom he supports, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump.)
I interviewed Sen. Lott in 2002 when he was campaigning in Montana for a longshot Republican who would lose to Democratic Sen. Max Baucus. When he entered the room, he smiled and offered his hand with these words, "So, you're Tom Daschle's old friend."
No, I replied, hardly. But I was a South Dakota native who knew and admired the senator. Lott said he did, too.
We talked about the second book in a series on Lyndon Johnson, "Master of the Senate," by the great historian Robert A. Caro. In the 1950s, by his will and talent, Johnson made the Senate majority leader a powerful position, and that had benefitted both Daschle and Lott.
Johnson worked with Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and also cajoled, persuaded, and intimidated senators on both sides of the aisle to get bills passed, ranging from early civil rights legislation to the interstate highway system to the creation of NASA.
LBJ was a political animal, but he also wanted to get things done. That no longer seems to be the case in Washington.
During their years as party leaders, Lott and Daschle chatted on a private phone line. They realized they had to be able to talk frankly with each other without the posturing and political palavering. Daschle said Friday that is a lesson other politicians would be wise to heed.
"Sen. Lott and I have many differences in politics and philosophy, but we understand the need for common ground and legislative action," he said.
Let's hope a lot of members of Congress in both parties read this book.
South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at http://sdprairie.blogspot.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.
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