WHEN President Clinton says that partisan politics should stop at the water's edge, he is paraphrasing a conservative Republican senator of almost a half century ago. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan held the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, now to be inherited by Jesse Helms of North Carolina. And what a difference! The comparison between Vandenberg and Helms underscores a difference in temperament, but, beyond that, a profound difference in the temper of the times.
Junior Sen. Harry Truman recorded in 1935, according to biographer David McCullough, the courtesy with which he was treated by senior Republican Vandenberg. When Vice President Truman, succeeding Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, went up to Capitol Hill to address a joint session, Vandenberg said that the surprise appearance marked an end to years of ``executive contempt for Congress.''
There was then a civility between men of different parties, different branches of government, that we can only sigh about today. But the difference was more than one of manners. Arthur Vandenberg had been a staunch isolationist, along with other Republicans.
In 1941 he opposed President Roosevelt's lend-lease program to help arm Britain against the Germans as a violation of neutrality. But December 1941 - Pearl Harbor - changed all that. Overnight, Vandenberg became an enthusiastic supporter of the war against the Axis powers. Having a common enemy that threatened America made Vandenberg a born-again internationalist and a dedicated foreign-policy bipartisan. As America moved into the cold war, Vandenberg simply transferred his views - and the need for bipartisanship - to the new enemy of communism.
The Truman containment policy started in 1947 with a proposal to aid Greece and Turkey against Communist aggression. Senator Vandenberg listened to a briefing from Secretary of State Dean Acheson and said that if the president would say the same thing to Congress, he - Vandenberg - would lend his support and so would a majority on Capitol Hill.
Vandenberg proceeded to fully support the Marshall Plan. The 1948 resolution that authorized the administration to negotiate a military alliance with Canada and Western Europe was called ``the Vandenberg Resolution.'' That was the birth of NATO.
Think of those times and think of today. Vandenberg would have died before questioning the president's credentials as commander in chief. Presidents and senators perceived a common purpose and adversary that transcended personal jabs and partisan bickering.
I am reminded of what Georgi Arbatov, Mikhail Gorbachev's chief America-watcher, told me five years ago. He said, ``The Soviet Union is getting out of the arms race, out of the cold war. You will see: We will deprive you of an enemy, and then what will you do?'' The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.