We began our service in the Montana Legislature 56 years ago when political differences were as real and sharp as they are today, but when the practice of politics wasn’t as political.
Then, there were old New Dealers who represented a viewpoint not unlike that of Bernie Sanders, and there were Barry Goldwater Republicans whose philosophy of the rugged individual would resonate with some of the Tea Party true believers of today. The similarity, though, may end there.
The two of us recently invited our fellow former state legislators, legislative staffers and one-time representatives of various state groups and organizations to a party in Helena to relive past times when the political process performed as the founders intended, and the work of the people we all served got done.
Sixty-five political “has-beens” joined us, and we were all so happy to see each other that no one would stop talking to sit down to the great buffet. It’s easy to descend into the rose-colored nostalgia of the notable events of the olden days, but some events of days gone by are well worth the look back because they help us understand today.
In decades past we had some knockdown drag-out battles over differences that we cared about deeply. We returned the next day, or the next year to continue where we left off. We recognized and accepted that we had sincere and honest differences about what was right for Montana. History remembers those debates and Montana law contains the resulting policies.
Through it all we preserved the dignity of the law-making process. We welcomed the free and frank expression of public opinion. We knew the pain of seeking smart and lasting compromises that led to solutions, made government work, and increased our trust and respect for each other. We got things done. No one called us dysfunctional.
Now we see public policy, leadership, respect and reason descending into wrath and wreckage as the national political campaign shudders to a close. With the triumph of angry and authoritarian politicians here and around the world, there are culprits enough to blame. In Montana, maybe our smaller problems can be added up to smart screens and term limits.
We old “has-beens” just looked each other in the eyes as in days gone by, and communicated earnestly about the challenges we lived through and the ones confronting the leaders of today. We don’t have any easy answers because there weren’t any when we were calling the shots. Each generation has to meet its own challenges in its own time.
Montana’s elected leaders of today are as well intentioned and sincere as any in any generation. But perhaps what is missing is the good faith that comes from open-mindedness. Our advice to those who are now on the pathway we once followed is to recognize that it can correctly lead in more than one direction. Recognize that. Respect that. And be open to looking for a better way.
Bob Brown (Whitefish) and Dorothy Bradley (Clyde Park) served together for many years in the state Legislature. Bradley was the 1992 Democratic nominee for governor and Brown was the 2004 Republican nominee for governor.