The Talking Stick Senators

Column: Senators with talking sticks won't solve America's problems

Susan Collins shows off 'talking stick'
January 26, 2018

A good day for a writer is one in which a metaphor falls into his lap. That happened recently when I read a behind-the-scenes report on the government shutdown. During the Democrats' brief and pointless exercise in immaturity, a bipartisan group of senators met regularly in the office of Susan Collins of Maine. Puzzled by what had brought them to this point, and desperate for a way to live up to their not-entirely-deserved reputations as moderate, clear-thinking, responsible statesmen, the Republicans and Democrats were looking for a way out. But there was a problem. Membership in the so-called "Common-Sense Coalition" had grown so rapidly that discussions became unwieldy, rambling, disorganized. "As you can imagine, with that many senators in a room, they all want to talk at once," Collins said later.

Yes, yes I can imagine: A hot and stuffy room filled to the brim with septa- and octogenarian millionaires, each with his or her own pet causes, peeves, tics, habits, manners, and figures of speech, but practically all of them captive to the conventional wisdom expressed in the pages of the Washington Post and New York Times and repeated in segments on cable television. That conventional wisdom runs as follows: immigration is an uncontestable good for America that carries little if any cost, President Trump is an unstable moron who is being manipulated by extremists, and the most pressing issue in politics, despite numerous polls to the contrary, is the fate of the men and women brought here illegally as children. The media-friendly moderate senators talking over each other may have differed on which party was responsible for the shutdown, and on what should be ordered for dinner (sushi or pizza?), but on the fundamental questions, their views, if I may hazard an informed guess, were remarkably similar.

Still, there was the matter of organization. These darn lawmakers wouldn't shut up. Collins's sadly commonsensical solution was to treat the assembled elites like schoolchildren. She brought out a rainbow-colored American Indian talking stick Heidi Heitkamp had given her and passed it around. "Whoever was holding the stick was the only senator allowed to talk," CNN reported. Back and forth it went, from Collins to Joe Manchin to Lindsey Graham to Dick Durbin to Jeanne Shaheen to Jeff Flake. "One Republican senator describing the incident told CNN the stick was successful." That senator has a skewed understanding of the word "success."

At one point, you see, a senator asking a question interrupted a colleague. "The member who was holding the stick," report Lauren Fox and Daniella Diaz, "'forcefully delivered' the stick across the room—but it missed its mark and caused damage to a shelf in Collins's office." The rod struck and chipped a poor fragile glass elephant. "After that, Collins replaced the stick with a small rubber ball." The stick was too dangerous for grown men and women. Maybe it was cursed?

I don't think the Washington press corps has grasped fully the meaning of this bizarre and darkly humorous incident. Here we have a select group of politicians who see themselves as representing the supreme values of the establishment—centrism, probity, thoughtfulness, politesse, bipartisanship, and friendliness to media—and they can't even use a talking stick properly. They try it, and a glass elephant ends up getting mortally wounded. They have to use a Nerf ball instead because Di-Fi might be injured. Elementary school kids of my acquaintance could conduct a meeting with less embarrassment and damage to personal property.

The wildness of the past year seems to have given rise to a sort of collective amnesia, a forgetfulness or willful confusion on the part of our elected officials and their courtiers over the circumstances that led to the stunning election result of 2016. To the degree that Donald Trump was identified with any single issue, it was opposition to illegal immigration. The masses in the stadiums weren't chanting, "Legalize the Dreamers." They were saying, "Build the wall." You might disagree with that sentiment. But to think that in his second year Trump would blithely ignore his voting base to make common cause with a man whose cell phone number he once read aloud on national television and another he refers to as "Dicky" goes beyond disagreement into the realm of sheer fantasy.

Since last September, Trump has said he wants to regularize the status of the "Dreamers," but in exchange for reforms to the immigration system on which he campaigned and was elected president. It's the second part of that sentence that Washington seems so eager to ignore or misread or ascribe to staff in a cynical and transparent attempt to drive a wedge between Trump and his subordinates. Yet Trump's position is reasonable and, after the shutdown exposed the Democrats' weakness, politically astute. He is not alone: There is the implacable fact of the House GOP caucus, the mainstream of which is steadfastly against amnesty and would oppose the initiatives of the Talking Stick Senators even if the president were somehow to morph into a Republican Luis Gutierrez.

Immigration, citizenship, borders, sovereignty, and national identity are thorny and uncomfortable and polarizing issues that divide not only both parties but also social classes. We'd rather not talk about them except in the most affirmative and clichéd ways. But they also increasingly seem to be the issues of the day, and deserve a much more serious and intellectually diverse accounting and debate than what went down in Susan Collins's workspace. We're not likely to get it, however. That image of the stick flying across the room says just about everything you need to know about our political class: its kitsch multiculturalism, its pretend seriousness, its infantilism, its conventionality, its bad aim, and its incompetence.