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So, for the record, I was never really a Bush fan, either 41 or 43 but if I had to choose I would have taken the old man in a heartbeat. I only had one encounter with Pappy

George Bush Passes

Bush in my political career and it was rather indirect but I believe it makes for good copy.

Back in the early 80’s, I think maybe 1982, I was working for Senator Jim Sasser (D-TN) and during the budget debate for FY ’83 had teamed up with a colleague from Senator John Heinz’s staff (R-PA) to introduce an amendment that would have added an additional $1 billion to the budget to protect the Railroad Retirement program. The Railroad Retirement program was established in the 1930’s to provide benefits to former railroad workers and administered by the Railroad Retirement Board, an independent Federal agency.

In those days, newly elected President Reagan had firm control over the Senate and the senior Tennessee Senator, Howard Baker, who was Senate Majority Leader was handily defeating all amendments to the Budget Resolution at the behest of the White House, I mean every single one no matter how small or popular. The Sasser-Heinz amendment, however, was particularly tricky, affecting over one million retirees across the country.

We had managed to defeat all procedural maneuvers to prevent a vote on the amendment and Baker and the Administration were worried. So much so that as we held up action throughout the evening and into the early morning hours and at about 1:30 in the morning they called then Vice-President George HW Bush at the Naval Observatory, which serves as the Vice-President’s residence, and had him come up to the Senate to preside over the vote just in case it was a tie. Few people know that the Vice-President serves as President of the Senate but only sits in the chair to break a tie vote.

As the lead staffer on the bill I was being summoned by Senators from both parties on the Senate floor to show them exactly how many railroad retirees would be affected in their states by the pending legislation. I distinctly remember then-Senator Kassebaum (R-KS), daughter of Alf Landon who was the Republican nominee for President in 1936, calling me over and expressing alarm at how many of her constituents would be affected. In the end Bush sat in the Chair of the chamber intently staring at me and I believe he was on the verge of snarling. I can only assume his demeanor was being directed at the person being responsible for waking him up and having him held hostage while votes against our bill were vanishing rapidly on the Republican side of the aisle.

I swear he followed me around with a stare and if looks could kill I would not have seen the sunrise. In the end Majority Leader Baker was forced to adjourn until 8 a.m. and Bush was sent back to bed. I never had the opportunity to mention this to the future President but I am confident he would have given it a hearty laugh. By the way, our amendment prevailed (57-41) and stood as the only piece of legislation adopted in that year’s Budget Resolution.

While I did not agree with his politics, which shifted dramatically after the 1980 election that elected Reagan, his reputation as a Congressman was that of a thoughtful, fairly moderate conservative. One thing that was indisputable, however, was his dedication and commitment to a career in public service that would see him serve as a member of Congress, US Ambassador to the United Nations, Republican National Committee Chair, US Liaison to China and CIA Director. There is little doubt that he was an institutionalist who cared deeply about public policy and in that respect we shared a commonality that is sorely lacking in today’s political climate, at least on the Republican side of the equation.

As President I could not help but admire the rather courageous stand he took in the lead up to the ’92 Presidential election to reverse his ill-fated call to “read my lips, no…new…taxes” and actually support raising taxes to mitigate a deep recession. It came very close to a profile in courage, particularly given the pressure conservatives were feeling coming from the Gingrich-led right wing of the party. It took guts to admit his mistake and that seems virtually unthinkable in the current political context. His vast political experience exposed him to knowledge and familiarity with the international community and trade issues and his stint as CIA Director gave him intelligence and national security chops. In short, he had paid his political dues.

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But I would like to return to the very basic public service issue as I believe it is central to the slow disintegration in public confidence that is currently dividing the nation and is proving toxic to our ability to actually address critical long-term needs of the nation and the world. Say what you might about the U-turn that the Republican Party has taken since the days of Eisenhower, particularly on the dangers of the military industrial complex and fiscal sanity, but at the core of the cynicism that is afflicting our nation is the lack of public confidence in both our institutions and our leaders.

We are currently facing what perhaps may be the most serious constitutional crisis since the Civil War. It affects not only our ability to address key domestic issues but also our international leadership on issues of morality, democratic process, and basic liberties and freedoms, which is being questioned as never before in our nation’s history.

We have become a nation of cynics and an intellectually lazy society far too willing to accept inane and simplistic arguments about dangerously complex issues.

I have written extensively over the past decade or so about the importance of a greater public awareness of civics and the political and policy processes that reflect our core values as essential to our leadership role in the world. We have become a nation of cynics and an intellectually lazy society far too willing to accept inane and simplistic arguments about dangerously complex issues. Witness the most critical issue of our time, climate change, that is currently wreaking havoc on human civilization and is gauged to project an accelerating level of destruction that will alter how our children’s generation and those that follow will be able to cope with an overheated planet. Denial of scientific facts and a general confusion that equates weather with climate is constantly on display as critical time simply passes us by.

Our government and our society are predicated upon the values of civility and the need to employ compromise in lieu of violence in settling our ideological and political differences. We are losing our tolerance for such democratic concepts, just witness the rise of nationalism, white supremacy, and treatment of refugees at our borders. We are experiencing a seemingly never ending wave of mass killings and of late more attacks that are aimed at religious and racial targets. The democratic spool that holds our representative system of government together is unraveling.

Quite simply we are risking the advent of an uncontrollably violent society where the rule of law loses its primacy in curbing overreactions to fabricated offenses. In the process of a growing lack of confidence in our institutions our elected leaders we are becoming complicit in a series of not so subtle procedural attacks upon those things we hold most dear: namely, our rights and freedoms.

None is more blatant than the wanton resort to institutional roadblocks to the rights of speech, assembly and the right to vote. Voter suppression has been raised to a new art, wholesale gerrymandering is distorting an already stunted representational scheme that could result, in our lifetimes, 70 percent of the US Senate representing 30 percent of the population. The Founding Fathers could not have envisioned such a thing in their wildest dreams. The Electoral College system has now delivered us two Presidents since the turn of the century who did not receive a majority of votes cast.

These are serious problems that demand the attention of those who have the desire to devote their considerable intellectual and political skills to solving problems that present us and the world with a more perfect society. It demands a realization that public service is a noble and valuable profession to ensuring that our children are presented with a life that is solidly enshrined in peace and opportunity. To do less is a crime and currently we are witnessing the great heist of democracy under a President dedicated to his own enrichment and aggrandizement rather than the aspirations of those who have sacrificed and died for a country that carries with it opportunity, empathy, and compassion.

We have lost another member of a dwindling cast of characters who, while we may not have agreed with him on a number of issues, truly believed in the institutional framework that led him to enlist in the service and become the youngest military pilot in World War II.

We need to instill in our minds the need to fix these problems before we bequeath a world to future generations that will further diminish their will to participate. I sincerely hope the recent elections bring forth a cadre of dedicated public servants to help effectuate such change. But they will also need the help of those of a generation that has knowingly or unknowingly conspired to leave this world in worse shape than we found it. It is the least that we can do.

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Lance Simmens

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