GVSU town hall calls for Vandenberg-esque bipartisan statesmanship


The GVSU Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies is dedicated to raising a community of ethical, effective leaders for the 21st century. Photo by Mike Nichols

Here is the lesson of the town hall event at Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies on Wednesday: The chasm of America’s political polarization can be bridged –– if there were more political leaders like Arthur Vandenberg.

Vandenberg, publisher of the Grand Rapids Herald and Republican senator from 1928-1951, was the focus of “Senator Arthur Vandenberg and the Lost Art of Bipartisan Statesmanship,” part of Hauenstein’s American Conversations series on leadership and civic engagement at GVSU’s Loosemore Auditorium in downtown Grand Rapids.

“We though it important to hold the event after the election,” quipped Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center. “Election seasons do not lend themselves to compromise. Elections are about separation.”

Years of bitter partisan bickering make it hard to remember when there was a time of healthy tension between a left wing party of innovation and a right wing party of conservation, Whitney said. Principled compromise is a pillar upholding the architecture of freedom, leading to respect for each other and unifying efforts toward common ground and the common good, he said.

To honor Vandenberg’s support of that pillar, Whitney introduced four speakers: Hank Meijer, biographer of Vandenberg; Richard Smith, presidential historian at George Mason University; Kiron Skinner, political scientist at Carnegie-Mellon University; and H.W. Brands, historian at the University of Texas-Austin.

The last truly consensus election in American history occurred during the 1960s, Smith said, because all the leaders were molded by enduring the Great Depression, surviving World War II and the national security scare of the Cold War.

The Kennedy/Nixon debates, although remembered for the candidates’ appearances, are noteworthy for how few differences of substance there were between them, he said. The parties were more mixed than they are today.

“In the 1960s, each party was a hybrid. Each party contained liberals and conservatives. Before you walked across the aisle, you were forced to learn the values of compromise,” he said. “We are in a political culture where, by and large — and bizarre as it sounds — the rewards go to people who prevent things from happening.”

Skinner said Ronald Reagan is the last example of a bipartisan president. Reagan, the Democrat who became a Republican, was one of the most improbable American presidents of all time, she said, but he found his voice in 1968 when he “learned he could remain committed to American ideals without sounding like Barry Goldwater.”

Reagan’s magic was in his commitment to classic liberalism, she said, and his big ideas which won support from both parties.

“The only way we build this broad-based coalition is to bring people together with big ideas. There doesn’t have to be a tension between guns and butter. We can resolve the Cold War without having a nuclear war,” Skinner said, quoting Reagan. “It distinguished him from his competitors. Reagan was the last American president that rooted what he did nationally and internationally in the American way.”

Brands explored the messy history of bipartisanship, or “the spirit of compromise,” as he called it.

Ironically, the founding fathers were strongly against political parties, he said, feeling parties would put their own interests above those of the republic. Within a decade after America’s birth, however, political parties appeared on the scene.

America’s first great bipartisan compromise came during the Louisiana Purchase, Brands said, and the second came during Henry Clay’s negotiation of the Compromise of 1850 that diffused a confrontation between slave states and free states.

“One thing about compromise is that you don’t get all of what you want,” Brands said, “But on the other hand, sometimes you get so much of what you don’t want, that the compromise can be unstable.”

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