BackStory at the Senate

BackStory

BackStory’s American History Guys – Ed Ayers, Brian Balogh, and Peter Onuf – took their show to Washington, D.C. at the end of July, speaking to a bipartisan group of top Senate aides about – what else? – bipartisanship and compromise in American history.

The American History Guys in the studio.

The American History Guys in the studio.

Of course, the Guys couldn’t talk about compromise without pointing to the times in American history in which it has been noticeably absent – from the strident partisan battles at the turn of the 19th century, when, as Thomas Jefferson described in 1797, “Men who have been intimate all their lives cross the street to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch their hats;” to the vicious struggles in the run-up to the Civil War, when abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was beaten almost to death on the Senate floor by aggrieved southern Representative Preston Brooks. Such extremes may offer some comfort in comparison to contemporary partisan rancor, but they shouldn’t make us complacent, the Guys warned. They also pointed to crucial moments when legislators have worked constructively together across the party divide, and found middle ground – on foreign policy after World War II, for example, or on welfare reform in more recent years.

Drawing lessons from history about how to forge compromise was music to the ears of the event’s organizers. The Guys’ appearance was part of an ongoing speaker series, sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, that aims at forging closer personal and working ties among Senate chiefs of staff – building constructive relationships that translate into a more cooperative policy process. These events are a chance to “educate, inform, reflect,” and simply “an opportunity to get to know one another,” said Tamera Luzzatto, senior vice-president for government relations at Pew, who was herself a chief of staff to former Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY). Luzzatto described the events as nonpartisan, with politics “left at the door.”

Jim Brown, chief of staff to Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) extended the invitation to Ed, Peter, and Brian, putting them in some impressive company. Recent speakers for the chiefs have included White House press secretaries like Dana Perino (who served under President George W. Bush) and Mike McCurry (President Bill Clinton’s press secretary), and Time executive editor Michael Duffy, co-author (with Nancy Gibbs) of recent bestseller The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity.

All partisanship seemed checked at the door of our event. I was impressed by the good will, and good humor, of those who carry such heavy responsibilities for our nation. – Ed Ayers

Another organizer was Charlie Harman, former chief of staff to Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), who recently left the Senate for a position at Emory University – but made sure to stay in town long enough to hear the History Guys.  “It was a great program,” he said. “The Guys brought the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries to life,” demonstrating that they knew their stuff while getting laughs from the dinnertime crowd – a combination of learning and levity they strike each week on their show.

The event was “wonderfully entertaining and informative” Luzzatto agreed. The Guys “played their role to the hilt,” she said, and there were lots of opportunities “to learn and laugh.”  There was a large audience taking up those opportunities, suggesting just how much the topic appealed to the chiefs.

It was invigorating—and inspiring—to talk history with some of the people in Washington who help make it. - Peter Onuf

It appealed to the Guys too, though they were also a little nervous to wade into what is often portrayed in the press as a partisan thicket. “But spending a few hours with the Senate chiefs of staff changed my assessment, said Brian Balogh – the “20th Century Guy.” The chiefs were up on the history, he said, “in fact, many of them helped make that history – the smart, engaged and most significantly, collegial give and take between these public servants left me optimistic that we can find a path forward that respects legitimate differences of opinion while forging compromises to tackle some of the nation’s biggest challenges.”

For a flavor of what the Guys had to say, take a listen to BackStory’s show on legislative gridlock, from earlier this year.