Magazine article Politics Magazine

They Crossed the Divide

Magazine article Politics Magazine

They Crossed the Divide

Article excerpt

A president of one party realizes that the recent war had wreaked havoc on a foreign region. To repair things he reaches across the aisle to work with one of the opposition's most partisan members.

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President Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi? Not likely. Bush and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden? Doubtful.

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Stumped? It was President Harry Truman working with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur Vandenberg to get Congress to pass the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe after World War II.

Presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama talk about the need to work across party lines, yet those instances are more the exception than the rule.

When John F. Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage, he focused on members of the Senate who went outside their comfort zone to take bold positions. Here are three political partnerships that set aside partisan rancor to serve the public good. Perhaps these examples will inspire similar acts of unity as the candidates battle their way toward November.

Harry Truman & Arthur Vandenberg

Arthur Vandenberg, whom New York Times columnist James Reston once described as a "big, loud, vain and self-important man who could strut sitting down," for years held an isolationist world view that was typical of Midwest lawmakers of both parties. But his views evolved so he would eventually be known as the author of the phrase "politics must stop at the water's edge."

The crush of events during World War II had a deep impact on Vandenberg, as they did on most Americans. But his willingness to put partisanship aside resulted from the personal touch of presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Both leaders, fully aware that the senior senator from Michigan influenced the votes of many of his GOP colleagues, dispatched aides who were responsible for Vandenberg's care and feeding.

The attention paid off. In January 1945, he spoke on the Senate floor and conceded that while he "once believed in our own self-reliance," in light of recent events in Europe and Asia, "I do not believe that any nation hereafter can immunize itself by its own exclusive action."That was just the beginning.

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When Roosevelt died three months later, Truman ratcheted things up several notches, both while the GOP was in the minority in 1945 and 1946 and when it took control in 1947. With his party in charge, Vandenberg became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Though the two Midwesterners had never been personally or politically close when both were in the Senate, Truman saw to it that Vandenberg had input on key legislation and enjoyed access to much of the diplomatic cable traffic.

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According to Walter Isaacson's and Evan Thomas' seminal book on that era, The Wise Men, Under Secretary of State Robert Lovett often dropped by Vandenberg's Connecticut Avenue apartment on his way home from work to have drinks and share the latest information about diplomatic and military issues.

At Vandenberg's urging, Truman increased Congress' oversight of the implementation of the Marshall Plan, included special provisions boosting the level of support to Greece and Turkey and named one of Vandenberg's friends, business executive Paul Hoffman, the program's first administrator.

Even in the heat of the 1948 campaign, Truman did not forget Vandenberg's efforts. Truman rejected the pleadings of national and state party officials to criticize Vandenberg as part of the overall Republican problem.

"When I was in Michigan, they wanted me to light into Sen. Vandenberg," Truman told Merle Miller in the oral biography Plain Speaking. "But I wouldn't do it. He'd supported the Marshall Plan; if it hadn't been for him, it might never have been approved in the Senate, and I wasn't about to forget that and start attacking him, and I didn't. …

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