The Tragic Loss Of Compromise

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - July 06, 2005
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Two events last week, both in their own way tragic. Shelby Foote died at the age of 88. I first discovered Foote more than 30 years ago. I was a graduate student working on my Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii and looking at a summer free of teaching to work on my dissertation.

But I made a big mistake. I joined a book club that offered Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative as an inducement to join. It induced me, all 3,000 plus pages of it. From the moment I began the first page of the first volume, I lost my summer.

I’d read an awful lot about the Civil War before discovering Foote’s work. But nothing I’d read on the subject before (or since) came close to matching The Civil War: A Narrative. His understanding of the motivations of warriors North and South, of the privations suffered by the men of both sides who fought the war, and of the failures of judgment and will that turned the war into bloodbath surpassed all the best work of all the academic Civil War specialists.

And Foote’s prose. Ah, Foote’s prose. Prior to The Civil War: A Narrative, Foote wrote fiction, and he brought the storyteller’s eye and a lyrical style to his great history. I certainly can’t claim to have read the entire universe of 20th century American prose, but I’ve plowed through more than my share. None of it has matched Foote.

But Shelby Foote’s celebrity came on the small screen, in Ken Burns’s 10-part PBS television series The Civil War. Bearded, pipe-smoking, handsome, Foote owned the documentary. Burns used other historians, but as the work progressed he came more and more to rely on Foote. A Georgian by birth and upbringing, Foote’s soft Southern drawl — and his encyclopedic knowledge of the subject — lent God-like authority to the whole.

But Foote’s wisdom overwhelmed me. Time and again he seemed to capture the insight that explained the battle, the general, the politician, the strategic flaw.

One of Foote’s insights has haunted me: in my own observation of politics, in my teaching, in the letters that sometimes swirl around the columns written by scribblers of the left (like me) or of the right (like some of my MidWeek colleagues).


In explaining why the North and South went to war in 1861, Foote argued that “the genius of American politics is compromise.” He was referring, of course, to the compromises that made the writing and adoption of the Constitution possible in 1787, of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that quieted the debate over slavery for a generation, and of the Compromise of 1850 that ever-sobriefly silenced the dispute over the expansion of slavery in the territories won from Mexico during the Mexican-American War.

During the secession winter of 1860-1861, according to Foote, the political leaders of North and South, abolitionist and slaveholder — and everyone in between — failed the nation. None would give another ideological or moral inch. No one would compromise. So the nation entered into a fouryear, savage, almost unspeakable war — one that, on levels far less savage, still rages.

The other tragedy appears more muted. It was the publication of a study of polarization in the United States Congress by social scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. They looked at roll-call votes in Congress between 1955 and 2005. What they found, conclusively, is that the political center — where compromises are fashioned — no longer exists.

The decline in congressional moderation has been steady. In 1955, 33 percent of U.S. house members were centrists; in the 2004 the percentage had dropped to eight. The United States Senate claimed 39 centrist senators; in 2004 there were nine.

Why the shift? According to political scientists Norman Ornstein and Barry McMillan writing in The New York Times, it’s “attributable to the emergence of the permanent campaign, the rise of partisan news media and, most of all, changes in Congressional redistricting.

“The expansion in the number of ‘safe’ seats in the House that began in the 1980s has put an increased importance on primaries, which favor more ideological candidates. A number of these sharp-edged representatives have then moved to the Senate, where they have helped widen the partisan gulf.”

Those few left in the center, those possessed of “the genius of American politics,” are denied the reins of power by their more partisan colleagues and often ostracized when they vote with the opposition.

A cultural civil war rages in and out of Congress. With two Supreme Court seats to be filled in the coming months, it will grow more heated. Shelby Foote knew of what he spoke.

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