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Diane Mufson: 'Strange bedfellows' sure are needed again

Jan. 22, 2013 @ 09:50 PM

In 1850 Charles Dudley Warner coined the phrase, "Politics Makes Strange Bed Fellows," which is said to derive from "Misery acquaints a man with strange bed fellows," in Shakespeare's "Tempest." Often this expression refers to political and other opponents discovering that cooperation is beneficial to both sides.

Current Washington politics shows our nation needs more "strange bedfellows." After all, Public Policy Polling found that Congress is less popular than cockroaches and colonoscopies. Some elected officials, including West Virginia's Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, are joining a "No Labels" group to tackle Congress' pathetic functioning.

In a recent opinion article in The New York Times, Susan Dunn, author of a forthcoming book, "1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler -- The Election Amid the Storm," reminds us that in 1940 when "The Democrats and Republicans were almost as polarized as they are today," (hard to believe) President Franklin D. Roosevelt embarked on a program of bipartisan involvement.

FDR recognized that the war in Europe was a real threat to this nation and that his office needed competent people, regardless of their political affiliation. Republican Henry L. Stimson was chosen as the secretary of war, even though Stimson had previously made negative political comments about FDR. Then FDR selected Frank Knox as secretary of the Navy, despite Knox publicly calling the New Deal "crackpot ideas."

But even more impressive in this "strange bedfellows" saga was FDR's choice of his Republican presidential race opponent, Wendell Willkie, to be his personal representative to meet with Winston Churchill and help with the Lend-Lease program.

Mr. Willkie paid a high political price. While much of the public and many newspapers approved of Mr. Willkie's contributions, the Republican Party did not. He was pushed to the sidelines at the 1944 Republican convention.

Dunn and other historians point out that in recent years other American presidents have appointed political opponents to important posts, not to reward them but to select the most competent people for the job. President Nixon chose Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan to be his domestic policy advisor and John F. Kennedy selected C. Douglas Dillon, a Republican, as his secretary of the treasury.

The recent movie, "Lincoln," based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's extensive biography of our 16th president, "Team of Rivals," illustrates that good can come from cooperating with your past adversaries.

Lincoln chose his closest advisors from among those who also sought the Republican presidential nomination. He selected William Seward as secretary of state, Salmon P. Chase as secretary of the treasury and Edward Bates as attorney general.

True, these individuals were all from the same party, but they had made scurrilous and incendiary remarks about Lincoln during the election battle and lesser men might have been unable to work well together after such a harsh campaign.

In a 2008 New York Times opinion column, "Defeat Your Opponents; Then Hire Them," Doris Kearns Goodwin noted that "...it can be dangerous for a president to surround himself with like minded people ... Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan, deliberately chose men for his cabinet who thought as he did and, with the agreement of those around him, did nothing to prevent the secession of Confederate States. He is now considered among the worst of our presidents."

President Obama has reached over the political aisle to tap former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, for the position of secretary of defense. Other Republicans may be asked to be part of President Obama's team. Our country's massive problems require intelligent and cooperative people to work together regardless of party affiliation. Our nation is again in need of "strange bedfellows."

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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