When Dolley Payne Madison became first lady in 1809, she instituted Wednesday evening gatherings at the White House where political rivals could meet and talk. They were called “squeezes” because so many people showed up and crowded the room. As Cokie wrote in her book “Ladies of Liberty”: “All were welcome as long as they were appropriately dressed. And all went — skipping a Wednesday night might mean missing a vital piece of political information or being left out of a crucial deal.”
We thought of Dolley when President Obama started implementing his own version of the “squeeze” — dinner with 12 Republican senators, lunch with Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, four trips to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers. What was true 204 years ago is true today: Personal relationships matter in politics. A lot. Mutual trust and respect are the lubricants that make the engine of government run smoothly. Without them, that machinery rusts and clanks and eventually stops. And that’s exactly what’s been happening in Washington in recent years.
Republicans are not going to agree with Obama’s agenda just because he fed them blue crab risotto and Colorado lamb at the fancy Jefferson Hotel. Politicians will hold to their principles and calculate their self-interest, just as they always have. Republicans and Federalists did not make peace over the macaroons and pecans at Dolley’s table, but at least they talked, and that’s the point.
Obama and his rivals are facing a series of hard challenges — immigration reform, gun control and, above all, a package of revenue increases and entitlement reductions. They can’t get serious about negotiations if they don’t talk first, if they don’t develop at least a modicum of confidence in each other. That’s why the “squeezes” are so important, and the first reviews have been encouraging.
“You know meetings like this are helpful, and I think they build relationships,” Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee told Politico after dining with the president. “I think they flesh out what people are thinking and what some of the obstacles have been. I think they help lay a broad parameter of a way forward.” Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma added: “I think (Obama) needs to do a whole lot more of that, because relationships matter, and building trust and confidence and knowing you’re not going to get gamed is the way to get something done for the American people.”
These meetings are particularly important because Washington has changed so much over the last generation. Many lawmakers leave their families at home now and come to the capital only a few days a week. There are good reasons for that trend — more spouses working, more planes flying — but the cost is high. Lawmakers don’t meet casually at church services or soccer games or school concerts. Their families don’t know one another. And it’s much easier to trash an opponent who’s a stereotype, not a neighbor.
Former Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, whose father, Birch, also served in the Senate, made this point when he left office several years ago: “When I was a boy, members of Congress from both parties, along with their families, would routinely visit our home for dinner or the holidays. This type of social interaction hardly ever happens today, and we are the poorer for it. It is much harder to demonize someone when you know his family or have visited his home.”
When Cokie’s late father, Hale Boggs, and Gerald Ford served together in the House, they led different parties but maintained a close friendship. When Ford’s wife, Betty, was planning her own funeral, she asked Cokie to deliver a eulogy emphasizing the importance of those cross-party relationships. It’s impossible to imagine the leaders of today’s Congress caring that way about one another, but at least one group of lawmakers — the female senators — tries to maintain a level of bipartisan civility.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, told BuzzFeed that the women are still hoping for their own invitation to dine with Obama, because he could learn something from them. “We like to relate to each other as people,” she said, “as just normal women who have the same job, may come from a very different political spectrum, but (we) are there to make a difference, and that commonality really drives us together.”
That’s what Dolley Madison tried to do: find the “commonality” between factions that makes compromise possible. Obama is late in understanding her wisdom. But, we hope, not too late.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.