The dying art of political compromise lost another champion this past week, and we will all too soon lose another one.
First to former two-term California Republican Governor George Deukmejian, who died of natural causes at his modest Long Beach home at age 89. And with his passing the nation’s political class lost yet another of “the old guard”—those seasoned veterans who thought reaching across the aisle was a better way to move our country forward that the bitter partisan acrimony that now threatens to tear our country apart.
USC Price School of Public Policy Professor Sherry Bebitch Jeffe perhaps said it best: “George Deukmejian was a very hard, conservative Republican. He was strong on law and order — but he could, and did, work across the aisle with Democrats when he felt it was right. I don’t think we’re ever going to see a political environment like that again, at least not in the near future. His passing underscores the drive away from being able to compromise, and communicates between the two major parties.”
For those who may not know the background of this son of Armenian immigrants, Deukmejian served 16 years in the California state legislature and one term as Attorney General before narrowly defeating Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley for Governor in 1982. Four years later, after helping recall three liberal state Supreme Court Justices, he won his second term in a landslide. His platform was a simple one: tough on crime and no new taxes.
Yet there was a side of George Deukmejian most voters never saw, but I had the good fortune of witnessing firsthand. Before embarking on a journalism career, I ran a political consulting firm in California, mostly helping businesses navigate the minefields of local politics. The legendary political consultant Bill Roberts asked me to help him run George’s campaign for Attorney General in northern California. I readily accepted, knowing the best way to forge a successful career in journalism was to understand how the system really worked in the rough and tumble world of politics.
California Governor George Deukmejian’s wife, Gloria, with Brian Banmiller at office Christmas party. Dec 1984.
I had many “learning” experiences working with George, but one stands out. One day during the AG campaign, I showed George a sampling of calls from voters on various subjects, including questions about his hard line stance on the death penalty. He randomly returned a constituent’s call from my office, trying to explain his “law and order” stance to a woman who was not buying what he was selling. But George pushed on; despite the fact I had booked him on a popular radio program within the hour, where he would be exposed to hundreds of thousands of voters. “George” I explained, “don’t get worked up over one vote before a major appearance.” We were late. George lost the lady’s vote, but won the election in part because his brand of retail politics connected with voters. He simply listened to them.
Another member of “the old guard” in the sunset of his years is Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, war hero turned public servant. During his 31 year long career in the US Senate, he championed “the art of compromise”. Now sidelined with brain cancer, his positive attitude toward his illness is the same trait that’s made him such a successful leader. His astounding life is well documented in the recent unofficial biography by Elaine Povich apply titled: “John McCain: American Maverick”.
From Amazon book reviews: “This unofficial retrospective honors and pays homage to Senator McCain’s astonishing journey—a story of courage, resilience, and leadership; irrepressibility, determination, and grit…it covers his childhood as the son and grandson of admirals, his service as a naval aviator in Vietnam and subsequent harrowing five-year imprisonment in a POW camp, his congressional and senatorial careers, his family, his presidential campaigns, and perhaps his most important role yet, as an elder statesman willing to stand up for the nation.”
My own experience with Senator McCain showed me the depth of his character. During a one-on-one television interview some years ago, as we started the interview, my cameraman Sean Drummond suggested we change the shot from shooting his left side to shooting his right side. Afterwards I asked why? Turns out McCain had undergone treatment for skin cancer and it showed in a dramatic scar on his left cheek. Most other politicians or celebrities I’ve interviewed over four decades would have asked us to shoot his or her “good side”. Not so for Senator McCain. He cared more about the questions than how he looked. And cameraman Sean Drummond’s sensitivity was indeed professional and impressive.
Having worked with Governor George Deukmejian and interviewed Senator McCain, I’m reminded of a famous quote from another great statesman, Winston Churchill. “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” That kind of courage is the building block of the “political compromise” we so desperately need in America.
CBS News Radio national business journalist Brian Banmiller has spent more than 40 years in the news industry, covering business, politics and the economy on television, radio and in print. Currently, his “Banmiller on Business” reports are delivered to an audience of millions nationwide.
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