Bipartisanship: A Hopeful Memory from an Unlikely Source - By Greer Clem
As confirmation hearings for Trump's Supreme Court pick begin today, I wanted to talk about what bipartisanship has meant to me and how that is changing in today's climate.
Bipartisanship has been a contentious facet of American politics for the last twenty years, but never more so than today. Party lines are being redrawn, parties themselves being redefined, and in an era where the President's Tweets offer greater insight into his ideals than his policies, it's hard to look across the aisle and try to make peace.
Several weeks ago, students at Middlebury College angrily protested a conservative guest speaker, Charles Murray, to the point that he was physically driven from the lecture hall and another professor injured in the process. Charles Murray, the controversial author of "The Bell Curve," despite being known as a conservative, has also written columns defending gay marriage and religious tolerance. I understand that in such a time of fear, we are angry. We do not want to sit in an auditorium and listen to someone who has made their success off of fundamentally different beliefs from our own, nor do we want to watch it happen on CNN every day. When Sean Spicer briefs the press or when the President tweets in the middle of the night, we don't have the chance to ask questions, to try to understand how fundamental differences can be bridged by common concerns. The incident at Middlebury was supposed to be such an opportunity, but was foiled by anger.
I understand this anger. I have been angry every day since Trump was elected. But I want to also emphasize that the desire to understand American bipartisanship has influenced not only my entire education and professional aspirations but my personal beliefs as well.
When I was a sophomore at Tufts, it was announced that Justice Antonin Scalia would be that year's guest speaker in our Snyder Lecture Series. Talk of protest began immediately and you couldn't walk through the library or campus center without hearing people express their disbelief that the school had invited someone so obviously against the liberal reputation Tufts maintains. In my American Politics class that day, I asked a question as I often did. Later that day, I received an email from the Professor of that class inviting me to a Q&A and dinner with Scalia himself at the President of the University's home. He wrote, "You seem like a curious learner and I think you would enjoy this experience and learn a great deal." I was of course flattered and thrilled, but in the back of my mind, I was worried. "Scalia and I have nothing in common," I thought. "What can I learn from him?"
I am eternally grateful that I had those doubts, because I have rarely been proven so wrong since. At the Q&A, ambitious students lined up to ask questions and Scalia deftly parried them with hardly any effort. As a shy 19 year old (instead of the obnoxiously opinionated 22 year old I am now), I sat in the back trying to absorb everything he said. The man was brilliant. He explained his rational for originalism, the belief that as a Supreme Court Justice, it was his obligation to interpret the constitution as it was originally constructed by the founding fathers. Young liberals, eager to impress, swarmed him with questions of gay marriage and women's rights, arguing how could you interpret the Constitution in such an antiquated way when our modern times are so different. Scalia smiled slightly, looking completely unconcerned by the onslaught of questions. He responded simply, saying that he believed it was his duty to examine the law within the constraints of our Constitution as it still exists. That does not mean that arguments cannot be heard within those parameters, but the Constitution was the legislative body of our nation and should be the guidepost for all decisions. Say what you will about the man's personal opinions, watching him defend his position was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Bitingly sharp and eloquent, he looked like he was having the time of his life.
Later that evening at dinner with donors and teachers and various select students, Scalia stood up to speak. He was only about five and a half feet tall, so this wasn't all that impressive. Ever the Italian, he held a tall glass of red wine in his hand. He thanked the President for inviting him and the school and said all the things I imagine one is supposed to say as a guest speaker. But then he looked around and smiled and said, "I just want to say, I've been to a lot of these things, and the room is always full of the money people - the donors and influential alumni. And I look around and see so many students, and I really respect that, because that's who I really came to talk to." I smiled, so proud to be at Tufts, so proud to be in his presence.
I went up to him after dinner and introduced myself and told him how appreciative I was I got to see him speak. I couldn't think of much else to say, and, as I'm sure you all know by now, I am not often speechless. He was shorter than me, somewhat red in the face from the wine, but he had the biggest smile and he grasped my hand and thanked me. I went home that night and researched the Justice I had met. I learned that he and Ruth Bader Ginsburg had Thanksgiving together every year, that their families were close friends. I learned that he was as widely known for his sense of humor as for his staunch conservative platform. Mostly, I learned that I had been wrong. I didn't agree with most of his positions and I will never be a conservative, but I was wrong to assume I couldn't learn from him.
That memory is one of my most treasured. From Scalia, I learned that conviction in one's beliefs does not mean blindness to other opinions. I learned that bipartisanship is a facet of American politics that will always exist and that does not need to be our demise. Political gridlock, Scalia said, was always envisioned by the founding fathers - it exists so that we do not destroy ourselves or become slaves to a monarch. Today this is being tested, and the temptation is greater than ever to only listen to opinions we agree with. I think that to abandon the idea that we can work together would be not only a betrayal to our country's origins but an incredibly cowardly thing to do. Yes, I am angry. Yes, I am scared. But I will forever remember shaking hands with one of the most powerful conservative voices in American political history and feeling that we had something in common - we believed in American politics. So today, I choose to be hopeful, even if it is foolish, and to celebrate America for the mess that it is and always has been.