It was called the 4 O’Clock Caucus. In the bowels of the Rayburn House Office Building, across from the U.S. Capitol, a bipartisan crew of NBA wannabees—otherwise known as middle-aged congressmen desperate for some exercise—would play an intense game of basketball on a shrunken court. Then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill would never call for a floor vote at 4 p.m. on game days, hence the name.
Having first been elected to Congress in 1982, I was privileged to play in many of those games. Imagine that, Republicans and Democrats in Washington actually engaged in something other than screaming at one another. Don’t get me wrong, we competed like hell and noses sometimes were bloodied. But it was all good-natured fun. We enjoyed each other’s company. And the relationships forged on the hardwood were often the foundation for getting things done when it was time to get back to work.
Thinking back, the 4 O’Clock Caucus was really where sports and politics first began to blend for me. As I got older and my “jumper” turned more into a “stander,” golf took over as my outlet. It was golf and politics that led me to Arnold Palmer.
I first met Arnold during my campaign for Pennsylvania governor in the early 1990s. Both of us were born in southwestern Pennsylvania, and we clicked immediately. Our relationship grew stronger over the years, and we forged a friendship I will cherish forever. Since Arnold’s death last month, which happened in the midst of the ugliest presidential campaign we’ve ever seen in modern politics, I can’t help but think about the lessons today’s politicians could learn from Arnold Palmer.
I read many tributes to Arnold in the days following his death. So many struck a similar theme. Namely that sportsmanship, an attribute so closely linked to Arnold, is civility’s cousin. Just like we did on that basketball court, Arnold competed like hell on the golf course. And what a competitor! If there was a par 5 reachable in two, he was going for it. Every time. But when the round was over, those he competed with—and many times lost to—were always treated with class and with civility. Can you imagine a fiercer rival than Jack Nicklaus? Yet there was Jack tearfully delivering Arnold’s eulogy in Latrobe. That says it all.
Arnold and I were honored to receive an honorary degree together from Allegheny College several years back. We spent a wonderful weekend on that beautiful little campus in northwest Pennsylvania. I recall how much he enjoyed speaking with the students during commencement weekend. And how they—and their parents—adored him. Deeply troubled by the rise of incivility in U.S. politics, Allegheny created the Prize for Civility in Public Life to highlight the unheralded public figures who strive to positively advance civility. I was proud to be in the room earlier this year when college president Jim Mullen presented the prize to Vice President Joe Biden and Senator John McCain. Though they disagree on virtually every policy issue, the Democratic vice president and Republican senator have built a decades-old friendship whose foundation is mutual respect.
Just recently, the college commissioned a survey to see if incivility is getting worse—and what the implications may be for our democracy. When compared to just six years ago, more Americans say they’re OK shouting over someone they disagree with in a political debate, belittling or insulting someone or throwing out personal attacks. The findings are quite chilling. Yes, we all know that this presidential election is the most uncivil we can recall in our lifetimes, but the numbing effect it is having on the electorate has me very concerned.
Arnold surely would be concerned, too, as the daily bombardment of incivility is antithetical to his entire life. The lessons Arnold learned as a young man that served him so well on the golf course were the same lessons he used so effectively in becoming a hugely successful businessman. Arnold treated everyone the same, from a titan of industry to a locker-room attendant. Arnold would never belittle or insult, interrupt or attack. Those were words unfamiliar to him. While he had strong political views, Arnold never questioned the motivation or morality of those who differed. He was a gentleman who never demeaned his rivals, all while being the fiercest competitor you’d ever meet. It’s a playbook every politician should embrace.
There was one finding from that Allegheny survey that jumped out at me and that troubles me deeply. The percentage of voters who believe elected officials should pursue personal friendships with members of other parties plummeted, from 85 percent in 2010 to just 56 percent today. Think of that. Nearly half of the voters’ surveyed think Rs and Ds should not be friends. Maybe that’s why they don’t play that basketball game anymore. They should. They need it now more than ever. Arnold would tell them to kick each other’s butt, and then go grab a beer. Together.
Tom Ridge was the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security and 43rd Governor of Pennsylvania. Today he is chairman of Ridge Global in Washington, D.C.