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.

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.

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To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at     www.creators.com.