Peace begins with a smile

What do the following smile-worthy lines spoken by American politicians of the past all, surprisingly, have in common?

Rep. Brooks Hays of Arkansas used to tell about the temperance advocate in his home state who wound up, in an impassioned speech, endorsing Prohibition this way: “I’m a minister of the Gospel, and I would rather commit adultery than drink a glass of beer.” That prompted one man in the crowd to respond, “I didn’t know we had a choice.”

When Rep. Morris K. Udall of Arizona mounted a long-shot challenge to become majority leader of the House, he confidently predicted, relying on the firm assurances given to him by his colleagues that they were solidly in his corner, that he could win. In the secret ballot within the caucus, those “firm assurances” disappeared, and Mo Udall was trounced by his opponent backed by the party elders. Asked afterward by reporters what had happened, Udall explained: “I have learned the difference between a cactus and a caucus: On a cactus, the pricks are on the outside.”

After finishing far back in the field in the 1984 New Hampshire presidential primary, Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings of South Carolina withdrew from the race with this observation: ”Thomas Wolfe was wrong; you can go home again. I know. That’s what the people of New Hampshire told me to do.”

What the authors of these lines — Brooks Hays, Mo Udall and Fritz Hollings — have in common is that all of them were Democrats. There was a time, not that long ago, when Democrats were proudly rogues, rascals and reprobates — not the sober-sided, self-serious purveyors of position papers they seem so often to have become. It was a Democratic speaker of the House, Jim Wright of Texas, who described the Democratic Party as “a mixture, an amalgam, a mosaic. Call it a fruitcake.”

Think of contemporary Democratic activists you see on the news. Their brows are almost always furrowed. Their mouths are pinched, their jaws clenched in self-righteousness as they unequivocally announce their nonnegotiable demands.

Adversaries and political opponents are not merely misinformed or mistaken. Worse, they are branded as “enemies” and regularly indicted as misogynist or sexist or recklessly given the nuclear charge of being racist. The happy-go-lucky feminist leader rarely appears on our home screen or before a microphone.

Please understand that the three individuals whose sense of humor I cited approvingly were also public servants of exceptional ability, integrity and accomplishment. Udall wrote a bill to set aside millions of acres of pristine wilderness in Alaska and then led an ultimately successful three-year fight through Congress to pass it over the powerful opposition of oil companies and other developers.

Hays, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, dared to mediate the bitter battle in Little Rock over the desegregation of Central High School enforced by Army troops sent by President Dwight Eisenhower. It cost him his House seat and his career. Hollings, when Mississippi and Alabama were led by segregationists and were combat zones of bayonets and brutality in the bloody battle for civil rights, was the governor of South Carolina, where he directly challenged the Legislature: “We of today must realize the lesson of 100 years ago and move on for the good of South Carolina and our United States. This should be done with dignity. It must be done with law and order.” Hollings and peaceable change prevailed.

To be a successful public leader, you don’t have to be a solemn crepehanger predicting gloom. Politics can and should be fun. Democrats could begin their comeback with a smile and even an occasional laugh.

It’s worked before.