On a Sunday morning two days before the crucial California presidential primary, hundreds of college-age volunteers crowded into their candidate’s campaign headquarters on Market Street in San Francisco to get their marching instructions for getting every registered voter the campaign had identified as backing Sen. Robert Kennedy to the polls on June 4, 1968.
It was there I heard, for the first time, the then-second-term California assemblyman who was on his way to becoming the longest-serving speaker of the California Assembly in history and then San Francisco’s first African-American mayor, the charismatic Willie Brown. To a rapt audience of self-consciously idealistic young people, Brown delivered a timeless sermon about the value and virtue of practical politics.
Brown spoke about his first winning campaign, in 1964, when, barely an hour before the polls were to close, he learned that an elderly African-American supporter (I think her name was Hattie Williams) who lived on the fourth floor in a building with no elevator had yet to vote. Trudging up the four flights, Brown knocked on the door and was greeted by Mrs. Williams, who was dressed in a hat and gloves and told him, “I knew you would come, Mr. Brown, because there are only two candidates in the election today that I want to vote for — you for the Assembly and Sen. Barry Goldwater for president.” (Historical note: Goldwater’s opponent, Democrat Lyndon Johnson, won 94 percent of the African-American vote that day.)
Here’s where Willie Brown delivered the lesson that shocked so many of the college-age volunteers hanging on his anecdote: Extending his arm to the woman, Brown said, “Wonderful, Mrs. Williams. I am here, if you will permit me the honor, to personally escort you to your polling place.” No lectures about how Goldwater had voted against President Johnson’s historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, just a smile, respect and a helpful arm.
The point Brown was driving home that Sunday morning in 1968 was timeless. A political party or a political campaign — as a former Republican congressman and continuing wise man, Tom Davis, points out — is a coalition of disparate people who agree on more than they disagree on and not, as ideological purists on both the right and the left would prefer, some private social club where admission is limited to those who think exactly alike.
Before he was governor of Mississippi or chairman of the GOP, Haley Barbour was the political director in Ronald Reagan’s White House. There the Gipper taught Barbour well: “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20 percent traitor.” Reagan, who was one of only two U.S. presidents to vote four times for Franklin D. Roosevelt and once for Harry Truman, heeded FDR’s cousin Teddy, who said, “All my life in politics, I have striven to make the necessary working compromise between the ideal and the practical.”
Reagan, the Roosevelts and Willie Brown were four eminently successful American politicians who practiced what they preached: The true leader seeks common ground and finds what unites us instead of inflaming and exploiting what divides us.