“It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing.”

“With slight shades of difference, you have the same…manners, habits and political principles. You have in common cause fought and triumphed together. The independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint councils and joint efforts; of common danger, sufferings, and successes.”
—George Washington

“(We) must be loyal to the obligations of our free, competitive party system…which denies that truth is a monopoly held by a privileged few…”
—Lyndon Johnson

Three leaders, three commentaries on the nature of true leadership in a democracy, especially on issues of great public moment. The simple fact is that the truly important questions must earn bipartisan support or they forever lack the moral authority to succeed with the people, who are after all the owners of this democracy.

One such great issue was the long struggle over the creation of Medicare, signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson who, like the current resident of the White House, had the advantage of large majorities in the House and Senate. The question of whether to provide health benefits for the elderly had been debated since the Social Security system was founded in 1935. The idea was rejected by Congress many times. Democrats generally favored a government-operated system; Republicans generally favored alternatives, such as payments to insurance companies to provide low-cost elder health coverage. Yet when Medicare passed Congress in 1965, the Senate vote for it was 70-24, with 13 Republicans in favor, and seven Democrats opposed. In the House, 70 Republicans supported Medicare, and 48 Democrats did not, in the 307-116 vote.

Medicare was bitterly contested, not by political enemies, but largely by senators and representatives who held different ideas of how to best serve the interests of the nation. One of Medicare’s greatest critics was the Senate minority leader, Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen. Johnson later said of Dirksen: “If Senator Dirksen has established his reputation for fulfilling the duties of partisanship, he has also quite avoided the temptations of irresponsibility…He is a great American. He is a great human being. He is one of my dearest friends.”

Can you imagine a president—or any political leader—saying such a thing in today’s much different political environment? Alternatively, can you imagine the Senate’s junior member of 1965 telling one of its senior members that no, he can’t have “another moment” to complete his remarks on health care legislation, as Minnesota Sen. Al Franken did to Connecticut independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman in December? Political deals were as well known in the 1960s as they are today. But can you imagine in the 1960s a Senate that bought votes for contested public policies with exemptions for some states not given to others, allocations of $100 million to individual hospitals, billions for a single senator’s pet projects and hundreds of millions for others?

Did you ever imagine that the leadership of “the world’s greatest deliberative body” would engage in hurried swap meets, often behind closed doors, to slap together a legislative Frankenstein simply because enough votes were bought to make it passable?

It saddens anyone with a sense of history to watch this kind of spectacle. We seem to have irrevocably lost that sense of common cause on behalf of the nation that so animated George Washington. We have lost Gandhi’s sense of how to do the right thing in seeking political victory. We have forgotten that truth is not the province of just one party, or of today’s majority.

Whatever the fate of the great legislation of our time, no matter which party “wins” or “loses”, what we really have lost in these dealings is leadership worthy of our trust. Certainly, this must be the greatest loss of all.