Joseph Sabino Mistick: Could we get back to friendship in politics?

When 19th-century journalist Charles Dudley Warner wrote, “True it is that politics makes strange bedfellows,” he was talking about political opponents who were forced by circumstances to work together. Either for common interest or for the common good, they got past their differences.

It’s not like that anymore. Cultural warriors force us all into permanent camps and demand that we have nothing to do with each other. Both the far right and the far left would rather fight and lose than look for middle ground. Even friendships are forbidden.

But the death last week of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah was a reminder of better times. Hatch was a real conservative — tight-fisted
with public money, a strong advocate of the Balanced Budget Amendment. He mostly played hardball partisan politics, but he could surprise you.

Hatch and Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy became famous friends over their time in the Senate. When Kennedy died in 2009, Hatch wrote that it was “a friendship that endeared us to some and enraged others who felt a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat should not be friends.”

But the best politicians know better. According to Hatch, since they came from opposite ends of the political spectrum, he and Kennedy “had little trouble enlisting bipartisan support to pass critical legislation that benefited millions of Americans.”

“As the years passed, our legislative achievements piled up,” Hatch said.

They worked to pass the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Medicare prescription plan and the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act. Their friendship made this possible.

We saw evidence of Hatch’s capacity for political friendship right here in the early 1990s when Hatch, a native Pittsburgher whose law degree is from University of Pittsburgh, made a surprise visit to a townhall meeting in the Hill District along with Sen. Arlen Specter.

Mayor Sophie Masloff was a lifelong FDR New Deal Democrat, and she would be sharing the stage with Specter. Sophie was 71, and while she relished being called “the Jewish grandma mayor” on the campaign trail, she was a tough Democratic Party politician.

As the mayor entered the rear of the hall, a familiar voice shouted, “Sophie! I love you.” She looked up and saw Orrin Hatch leap to the floor and run up the aisle. He threw his arms around her and lifted her feet off the ground, as they laughed together.

It turns out, they were old friends. The conservative Republican senator and the liberal Democratic mayor walked to the stage holding hands. Hatch explained it later, telling us that when he was a new lawyer, Sophie was the jury room clerk and helped him pick his first jury. He never forgot her.

Back at the office, when I suggested that it might have been good to know that Hatch was a friend in case we ever needed his help in Washington, she said this: “If we ever do need his help, he’ll help if he can. And if he can’t, we’ll still be friends.”

The occasion of Orrin Hatch’s death is a useful reminder of how much we can accomplish on behalf of the public if we are willing to take the risk of friendship. That may be the only way through this brutal gridlock.

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