Listen up, North America.
In the blur and bluster of partisanship and polarization, there are wise words of counsel to consider. Often they come in valedictory speeches, the musings of political figures who are completing their service. Some of them were uttered in the Canadian Parliament the other day.
The remarks of Marc Garneau, stepping away from Parliament Hill in Ottawa after 14 years in the House, have great meaning on both sides of the border. They join two other valedictory speeches on the American side that are both a lament for our times and a bracing prescription for healing.
In the words of these three — lawmakers I have known and respected for their discernment, discretion and determination — are both reflection and recommendation. One a Canadian Liberal, one an American Democrat and the third an American Republican, their remarks comprise the wisdom of the ages and are a sagacious commentary on our own age.
Listen up, North America, to what Mr. Garneau — who in the fall of 1984, as an astronaut on the space shuttle Challenger, viewed the continent with special perspective, from Earth orbit — said of his partisan rivals as he concluded 14 years in office:
"To those sitting across from me, I want to say that I enjoy the thrust and parry in this chamber. I have always viewed those members not as enemies but as adversaries, and there is a difference. I know that every single one of them comes here wanting to make Canada a better place. We might have different views about how to do it, and that is fine, but when all is said and done, there is much more that unites us than divides us."
Then Mr. Garneau delivered a summons to action that is as appropriate on Parliament Hill as it is, 556 miles south, on Capitol Hill:
"Let me issue a challenge to everyone in this chamber. Arrive each day in this House with the firm intention of showing respect for colleagues and for this extraordinary place. Be dignified. We must remind ourselves that when emotions run high, as they do for all of us, those emotions need to be channeled in a positive way, whether when supporting something or criticizing it."
Could Mr. Garneau have been speaking of Washington as well — might he have seen the spectacle of the 15 ballots to choose the speaker of the House this winter — with this critique of legislative comportment?
"We all know that we are capable of dignified behavior. We all know that we are capable of being critical without resorting to yelling at the top of our lungs. We all know that we want to be heard and even listened to when we ask a question or give an answer. God knows that the Speaker of the House reminds us of this often."
Now listen to Massachusetts Democrat Paul G. Kirk's valedictory remarks on the Senate floor as he departed the chamber on Feb. 4, 2010:
"Bi-partisan comity and collaboration must replace the polarization that threatens to poison the atmosphere and impede the work of this body. The United States Senate is in need of its own form of climate change, and only United States Senators of good will and good faith of both parties can bring that change about."
Mr. Kirk, who worked for Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, had a nonpartisan message for his colleagues:
"We are among the very few who are privileged to serve in this historic body. As I complete my own duties here, I could not leave with a clear conscience without urging all my colleagues to seize this opportunity and this mutual obligation, to take the long view, to put partisan politics aside, to come together in good faith and good will to better serve this institution we revere, the people we represent, and the nation we love."
Now pause for a moment and listen to the valedictory remarks of Senator Lamar Alexander, delivered in December 2020 only weeks before insurrectionists at the Capitol invaded the very floor where the Tennessee Republican offered his critique of partisanship:
"Our country needs a United States Senate that works across party lines to force broad agreements on hard issues — creating laws that most of us have voted for and that a diverse country will accept."
One of Mr. Alexander's Tennessee mentors, former Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr., believed deeply in bipartisanship and tried to create a Senate chamber where that would flourish. He liked to quote the South Carolina firebrand John C. Calhoun, who often found himself at odds with, and occasionally allying with, his gifted colleague and rival from Kentucky: "I don't like Henry Clay. He is a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes. I wouldn't speak to him. But by God, I love him."
A former president of the University of Tennessee, Mr. Alexander was asked what a group of teachers visiting the Capitol should tell their students. His answer is simple, and inspiring in its simplicity:
"Please tell them that I wake up every day thinking I may be able to do something good for our country and that I go to bed most nights thinking that I have. Please tell them that it has been a great privilege to be a United States senator."
In his first inaugural address, delivered in 1861 as the Civil War beckoned and as the scaffolding on the incomplete dome of the Capitol stood as a symbol of an unfinished nation, Abraham Lincoln spoke of his hope for a time when "the mystic chords of memory" would in the future "swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
And so could it have been a coincidence that Mr. Garneau, who from 240 miles above the Earth had 133 opportunities to view his home continent — devoid of national boundaries, green in its splendor, beautiful in its serene isolation in the heavens — chose to share with his parliamentary colleagues the eternal words of the 16th American president?
"My challenge to members is to find their better angels and put away the anger and false indignation. Criticize by all means, but do it with respect and maybe even wit. Make Canadians proud of this House and the people in it."
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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