It's lonely in the middle

We live in an age of extremes -- in politics, the media, pop culture. What we all need is a strong dose of moderation, consideration, and compromise.

Barth Falkenberg/The Christian Science Monitor/File
The Monitor’s Godfrey ‘Budge’ Sperling Jr. (c.) at a Monitor Breakfast with Ronald Reagan, 1985

It’s lonely at the center. All the passion and righteousness is out on the fringes.

The left is sure that rapacious capitalists are gorging on tax breaks. The right is convinced that misguided social engineers want to pick your pockets to fund poets and panhandlers. But what they most dislike is the loony center, the place where Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives confer politely, give a little and take a little, and even (cover your ears, children) compromise.

Spending time in the center will cost you. If you run a TV show, it will cost you ratings. If you run for office, it may cost you an election.

The recent debt-ceiling debate in Washington shows clearly how constrained even the most senior political leaders now feel. Has it ever been this bad?

I recently phoned Godfrey Sperling, who served for decades as the Monitor’s Washington bureau chief, and asked him that question. Are you kidding, he answered. Come back to the mid-1960s with me.

Mr. Sperling (everyone calls him “Budge”) arrived in the capital in 1965, just as the Vietnam War was shifting into high gear. The next few years split the country deeply. Besides the war and the draft, there were assassinations, race riots, and massive student protests.

Budge loved a good scoop, but he didn’t see the point of badgering and cajoling sources – which led him to initiate a forum that eventually became known as the Monitor Breakfast. The idea, he says, was to have a calm but substantive conversation. “I had long since found out that you could get good information out of people if you didn’t beat them over the head,” he says. “Public servants are more forthcoming in a civil setting.”

Some wags lampooned that approach. They liked hardball politics and journalism. But Budge and his breakfast colleagues consistently got the scoops they were looking for.

In 1968, for instance, Robert F. Kennedy sat down with them. The former attorney general told reporters he had no intention of running for president. But at one point, someone came into the room and passed word that American and South Vietnamese forces were dealing with the major battlefield setback that became known as the Tet Offensive.“We could see the change in his eyes right there,” Budge says. “By the end of the breakfast, we knew he had changed his mind.”

As Kennedy walked with Budge to the elevator, he all but confirmed his candidacy.Here was a man wrestling with his thinking in real time. RFK was a human, not a sound bite. So are all political figures. Sure we want them to stick to their principles, but we also want them to listen and change their thinking when necessary.In 2001, Budge handed the Monitor Breakfast over to David Cook, who carries on the tradition. As Dave puts it: “Our early morning gatherings offer something rare in today’s frenetic media world: in-depth, civilized conversation between journalists and newsmakers in an atmosphere that encourages serious questions and thoughtful answers.”

Now retired, Budge still keeps an eye on politics, though not as intently as before. One thing that strikes him, he says, is that people seem so certain about what they believe. He wonders how anyone can shut off the possibility of a better idea or a more persuasive argument.

“Polarization? There certainly is a lot of yelling,” he says. “I’m not sure if it reflects the nation or just what those people ate for breakfast.”

Budge knew the value of a good breakfast. Dave knows it as well. For 45 years, they have presided over a civil, substantive breakfast. See, you can do that in Washington.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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