The Better Angels of 2016

There’s still cause for political optimism in the midst of a disheartening campaign season.

The Better Angels of 2016

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By Peter Fenn | Contributor USNews & World Report

Oct. 24, 2016, at 5:30 p.m.

As we approach the end of this long, tiring campaign season we seem to have almost cast aside any discussion of civil discourse as a bedrock of our politics.

In the midst of this years’ difficult back and forth, I have been privileged to serve on two boards that focus on the legacies of two men whose political careers were defined by members of the Greatest Generation: Sen. Frank Church of Idaho and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. The Frank Church Institute at Boise State University and the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas both are at the forefront of involving students and the surrounding community in an effort to change the discourse and prove, once again, that politics is an honorable profession.

It’s not an easy climb. But let me tell you why I am encouraged and what I experienced this past week in Lawrence, Kansas. We had the first meeting of the new board of advisers, comprised of Republicans and Democrats, who have extensive experience in government, politics and business. They share one common thread: They are committed to democratic dialogue and they care deeply about the mission of the Dole Institute “to promote political and civic participation as well as civil discourse in a bi-partisan, philosophically balanced manner.”


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We discussed the many impressive programs of the Dole Institute and what we could do to help but, most importantly, we met with the students who are engaged in public life. Four student advisory board members representing the four classes were interviewed by the institute’s director, Bill Lacy, and gave one of the most impressive presentations I have seen during this whole campaign season. From first year Haley Pederson, to sophomore Amanda Bhatia, to junior Vince Munoz, to senior Kevin McCarthy, they were all lively, positive, smart, incredibly articulate and they nailed what is so critical to the future of our democracy: You have to listen, to learn from others, to debate and discuss, to question, to weigh the facts and arguments, and to do your damnedest to achieve common ground. They reveled in meeting with some of the nation’s leading reporters, advocates, office holders, even former presidents.

What I saw that evening lifted my spirits and gave me confidence that many of our young people are able to sort through the events of this campaign season and see the future a lot clearer than many of us who seem mired in the day-to-day. Their experience at the Dole Institute reinforces another part of the mission: “only through political and active participation can citizens redirect the course of our nation.”

As we were finishing our work, prior to the student panel, there was a knock at the door of the board room. It was a surprise guest. Bob Dole himself flew all the way out to Kansas, at 93, to thank all of us for our service. He spent time with the students and thanked them as well, just as he did when he traveled a couple of years ago to all of the 105 counties in Kansas to thank the citizens of his state. A class act.

Later this week, the Frank Church Institute will hold its 32nd annual conference to highlight a bipartisan presentation by former Reps. Tom Davis, R-Va., and Martin Frost, D-Texas, who have authored a book, “The Partisan Divide,” which discusses how best to end the gridlock in Washington. Similar to the Dole Institute, the Church Institute has also laid out its mission: “to provide a forum for open and informed discussion characterized by civility, tolerance and compromise.”

These two places are, in my view, jewels. There are others around our nation that strive to provide experiences for those who want to appeal to the best in America. As President Abraham Lincoln put it in his first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

If our politics survived the great Civil War and so much more we can surely turn to the values and the missions of the Dole and Church Institutes to help lead the way. Once this election is over, that should be our calling.