Former U.S. Sens. J. Bennett Johnston, left, and John Breaux speak during a special discussion titled “Civility in Public Life,” which was held Oct. 9 in the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication’s Holliday Forum. The forum was held in conjunction with an exhibition of the senators’ papers, “Two Gentlemen from Louisiana,” currently on display at Hill Memorial Library.
Photo: Aaron Looney/LSU Communications & University Relations
Former U.S. Sens. John Breaux, J. Bennett Johnston Speak on “Civility in Public Life”
Former U.S. Sen. John Breaux laughed as he pointed to a sheet of loose-leafed paper featuring hand-written notes and edits, encased at LSU’s Hill Memorial Library among other items from his political history.
“That was my final speech before Congress,” Breaux said of the document, one of many now on display in the library as part of the “Two Gentlemen from Louisiana” exhibit. The display features photos, documents, correspondence and more from the political lives of Breaux and former U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston.
In conjunction with the exhibit, Breaux and Johnston spoke during a public discussion titled “Civility in Public Life,” held Oct. 9 in the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication’s Holliday Forum. The Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs hosted the event.
During the event, Breaux and Johnston — two of Louisiana’s most recognized political figures — discussed how civility has been lost in the realm of political life in recent years and what could be done to restore that civility.
John B. Breaux holds a bag of Louisiana rice on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Breaux was elected to Congress in 1972. Image from John B. Breaux Papers, Mss. 4922, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, La.
Breaux, a Democrat from Crowley, first represented the Seventh District of Louisiana in the U.S. House of Representatives, beginning in 1972, and held that position until his election to the U.S. Senate in 1986. He left office in January 2005.
Johnston, a native of Shreveport and also a Democrat, was elected to the Senate in 1972 and served until his retirement in January 1997. He was noted for his ability to broker bipartisan compromises. Johnston’s gentlemanly manner and mastery of the legislative process are credited with the effectiveness he enjoyed during his tenure.
Bob Mann, Manship chair and professor/senior fellow of the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs, moderated the conversation. Mann formerly served as Breaux’s state director and press secretary and as Johnston’s press secretary for his 1990 re-election campaign.
Changes in attitude
Both men said they saw former U.S. Sen. Russell Long, who Breaux replaced in the Senate, as an influence and a model for civility in politics.
Breaux said he felt that increased political tensions have taken away from civil discussions in Washington. He said that when he first arrived in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972, then-Democratic leader Tip O’Neil of Massachusetts and then-Republic leader Bob Michael of Illinois “had two totally different philosophies on life and politics,” but still spoke more in one day than current U.S. Senate and House leaders of both parties do in a year.
“They send letters to each other and put out press releases against each other, but they don’t really interact in the way they did when Bennett and I first got there,” Breaux said. “These guys used to go have drinks in the evening, bet on football games and play cards with each other. They always found a way to get things done. I’m not sure that the product they produced wasn’t substantially better than it is today. We were able to work out their differences in a personal way.”
When asked what changed the situation, Breaux cited changes in political life taking away from time in Washington, D.C.; the advent of public relations firms creating more competition and less compromise; and the gerrymandering of political districts to reduce competition as well as the need for compromise. He noted that out of 435 voting districts in the U.S. House of Representatives, only 20 are considered to be competitive elections.
J. Bennett Johnston Jr., was elected to the Louisiana Senate in 1968. Image from J. Bennett Johnston Papers, Mss. 4473, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, La.
Johnston agreed, adding that when he entered Congress, there were no “wedge amendments” that garnered media attention and cast a negative light on those who vote against them.
“Now, you have about half the things you vote on in the Senate being wedge amendments,” Johnston said. “Everyone was much more civil before. People aren’t as friendly or cordial or warm as they use to be.”
Johnston said that recent campaign finance law reform has allowed increased spending on and donations to political campaigns, which creates a much more difficult situation in terms of incumbents having to constantly campaign for reelection.
“When they took all the limits off in (1973 U.S. Supreme Court case) Buckley vs. Valeo, now you have an unlimited war chest,” Johnston said. “You have some candidates with multi-million campaigns. That’s absolutely absurd. It’s corrupting, not in the sense that all politicians are corrupt, but the system becomes corrupt because every minute, politicians have to be raising money. It used to be that in the Senate with six-year terms, you really start politicking two years before if you were vulnerable. Now, when you’re elected, you immediately have fundraisers every weekend. Instead of being with your colleagues, you have to be out raising money. The only way to get around that, I believe, is with a Constitutional amendment. The chances of that are almost zero.”
Because of the increased tensions in Washington and frustration in voter bases, Breaux said, many voters are changing their affiliation to independent.
Johnston said that the money spent on political speech and promotion was a major cause of disagreements and outbursts seen at some town hall meetings this summer dealing with current health care reform options
“With all these hundreds of millions of dollars floating around in the media for commercials that demonizing a candidate or party, people begin to think of those candidates or parties in uncomplimentary terms,” said Johnston, who added that misinformation in the media on health care reform has led to it becoming such a polarizing issue.
Breaux also said that the advent of 24-hour news channels and political programming that aims at the extremes of both liberal and conservative viewpoints has also caused a divergence within the political realm.
“With 24-hour news and programming, you have to fill up that air time,” Breaux said. “Many of these figures appeal to either the far left or the far right. They incite people to just about riot. They feed on this stuff, and then go to a public meeting and treat it like it’s the gospel truth. They just parrot what they hear instead of reading a book and looking up information on an issue.”
Johnston and Breaux both said that the media also focuses too much attention on members of Congress that make outrageous or controversial comments on issues or even about fellow members.
“You can disagree without personally being disagreeable with each other,” Breaux said.
Glimpses of political history
Immediately following the program, Johnston and Breaux attended a reception for the “Two Gentlemen from Louisiana” exhibit in Hill Memorial Library. The exhibit is named for the manner in which Congressmen address one another on the House and Senate floors.
While Johnston donated his papers to the library in 2002, the reception also marked the formal opening of the Breaux papers, which the senator donated to LSU Libraries Special Collections in 2004. Processing of the collection was supported through a grant from the Department of Education.
The exhibit — which will be on display through Jan. 20, 2010 — features documents and photographs highlighting both Breaux’s and Johnston’s political careers and legislative accomplishments during their combined 55 years in Congress. A small sampling of items from other Congressional collections is also included. For more on Breaux’s papers, visit www.lib.lsu.edu/special/breaux.html. For more on Johnston’s papers, visit http://www.lib.lsu.edu/special/ppapers.htm.
The papers of former U.S. senators and representatives provide a useful resource for studying the development of public policy and the actors behind it. They include correspondence, committee minutes, schedules, speeches, legislative research files and other documents.
“I want to thank LSU for everything it’s done for Bennett and me to bring our papers here,” Breaux said. “People spent a lot of time collecting all of these items. I’m reminded of the fact that Earl Long used to say, ‘Never put anything in writing that you can convey by a wink and a nod.’ If Bennett and I had followed that, there’d be nothing to go into the library.”
To learn more about The Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs, visit http://www.lsu.edu/reillycenter.
To learn more about the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, visit http://appl003.lsu.edu/masscomm/mcweb.nsf/index.
To learn more about the exhibition of the papers, contact Curator of Manuscripts Tara Z. Laver at firstname.lastname@example.org or 225-578-6546.
Additional information about LSU Libraries Special Collections’ exhibit-related events is available at http://www.lib.lsu.edu/special/exhibits/index.html.
Aaron Looney | Editor | Office of Communications & University Relations