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Former senator remembers a better day in Congress

Published: Monday, Nov. 25 2013 9:45 p.m. MST

Our elected leaders are not playing well together in Washington, as you’ve probably noticed. The atmosphere in Congress looks and sounds a lot like Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen.

Jake Garn — remember him? — recalls a better time.

The 81-year-old Garn, of course, is more than a Monday-morning quarterback. He represented Utah in the U.S. Senate from 1974 to 1993. He pretty much saw it all during his 20 years in Washington, and still he is disturbed by the current state of affairs.

“What really bothers me is that it has become so overly partisan and personally nasty,” says Garn. “Congress was set up brilliantly by the Founding Fathers to have checks and balances. Not only the House and Senate, but the two-party system. This is so we’d have a difference of opinion and one group isn’t controlling the whole country.”

Garn notes that earlier this year he received a call from Pat Leahy, the senior senator from Vermont and Garn’s former political rival. He called just to visit.

“We’re about as far apart politically as we can be,” says Garn. “We never agreed on anything. But we are friends. He was telling me, ‘I wish you were here (in Washington).’”

Garn is making a point: That sort of respect between politicians from different sides of the aisle doesn’t seem to happen these days.

When Garn served in the Senate, he witnessed the relationship between Barry Goldwater, a famously conservative Republican, and Hubert Humphrey, a liberal Democrat.

“They were also far apart politically,” says Garn. “They’d have a debate on the Senate floor and then go have a drink together and laugh about who won the debate. They were good friends.”

Garn also notes the friendship between Orrin Hatch, Utah’s conservative senator, and the late Ted Kennedy, the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, as another example.

“People used to ask, ‘Why are Ted and Orrin such good friends?'” says Garn. “But that was good for the country.”

The art of compromise and simple courtesy and respect has been lost, replaced by personal attacks and an unwillingness to see another point of view. Garn tried that approach once himself. When he went to Washington as a freshman senator, he was a firebrand, a conservative who reveled in being an outsider who would refuse to work with the other side, rather than a Washington insider. He learned that approach was unworkable.

“I had to be willing to make compromises or I’d just become a big mouth in Congress,” he says. “It was a process. After I’d been there a few months, I realized, yeah, I’m not a dictator no matter how strong my beliefs. I have to be willing to work with the House and the president, even though I get frustrated and don’t like the outcome of it.

“There were always some issues that, no matter the outcome, I wanted to make sure my beliefs were known, so my vote was how I felt. Yes, I was a Republican, but I was an American first. The system is set up so one group couldn’t always have their way.”

In Garn’s estimation, the road to extreme partisanship and personal agendas was paved by allowing TV on the Senate floor. Garn fought against it and ultimately voted against it. He recalls some were upset he opposed the cameras.

“Do you want to be secretive (on the floor)?” he was asked. He would reply, “We’ve always had radio. We’ve always had press in the galleries.’”

He believes the presence of cameras changed everything.

“I thought it would turn the floor into a stage, and I was correct,” he says. “There used to be old-fashioned debates and the Senate floor was packed. Today, most of the time there’s nobody on the floor. They are out there individually, and instead of honest-to-goodness debates, you’ve got performances. Now they can get on TV and get national exposure. It’s part of the problem. It’s changed how Congress works.”

So there it is: Congress is another reality TV show, like “Survivor,” only with less cooperation and progress.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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