Maybe the most surprising thing about President Obama’s wining and dining of GOP lawmakers is the fact that it’s surprising.
Socializing that crossed party boundaries once was the lubricant that greased political compromise in Washington. In recent years, though, lawmakers have been spending much more time back in their home districts, which means they have less time to get to know their colleagues in Washington. And the polarization of politics has led to less two-party partying.
Obama drew lots of attention last week for dining with a dozen Republican senators at a local hotel (the president picked up the check) and lunching with GOP House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. This week he plans to visit each party’s caucus on Capitol Hill. It’s all part of Obama’s campaign to win Republican support for a budget deal.
Senate Historian Donald A. Ritchie says he’s far from the first to mount such a charm offensive.
President George Washington held dinners with lawmakers every week, rotating who was invited, Ritchie says. Harry Truman showed up to lunch with senators on his first full day as president in 1945.
“John Kennedy, who complained that neither Truman nor Eisenhower had ever consulted with him when he served in the House and Senate, tallied 2,500 separate contacts with members of Congress during his first year as president over luncheons, receptions and ‘coffee hours,’” Ritchie says. Unfortunately, it didn’t help his won-lost record on Capitol Hill.
Ritchie says that President Lyndon Johnson had better luck. He regularly visited the Capitol for a drink with Republican leader Everett Dirksen, who helped him pass much of his legislation.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt used poker for his socializing with lawmakers, says Tim Blessing, a professor of history and political science at Alvernia University in Reading, Pa.. “I am told that he [FDR] mixed a particularly fine martini for his guests, Blessing says. “Truman not only did the same, but occasionally went out on the town with this figure or that figure.”
President Ronald Reagan actively courted lawmakers, Ritchie says, especially House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat. The two men had a deal that politics ended at 6 p.m. when they could meet for drinks. “Reagan used to call and ask, ‘Tip, is it 6 o’clock yet?’” Ritchie says.