At the Drew Forum, Senator Jeff Flake Calls for Bipartisanship

Discusses past and present of nation’s politics

November 2019 – Senator Jeff Flake spoke at Drew University as part of the Drew Forum lecture series, focusing on the critical need for a return to bipartisanship, civility and principles in America, in an age of hyper-partisanship.

Flake, who served six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012, retired in 2018 when his first term ended. The senator began the event with a half hour talk about searching for the better angels of our nature, a famous Abraham Lincoln quote, before taking questions from the audience.

Here are a few key takeaways from his appearance.

“Assume the best, look for the good.”

Reflecting on his small, Arizona hometown of Snowflake (“It’s not an accident that I was raised there, it was named after my great-great grandfather…I grew up not knowing ‘flake’ was a pejorative term”), Senator Flake noted that party registration had once meant—and in many ways still means—very little when it comes to day to day living. “Roads needed to be fixed. Ballfields needed to be mowed. Stray cattle had to be removed from the city park. People had to get along,” he said.

He remembered a three-by-five card his mother had stuck to the family refrigerator that read, “Assume the best, look for the good.”

In the current political climate, however, Flake noted it is increasingly difficult to watch TV, listen to the radio or read newspapers or social media “without being alarmed at the vitriol and cruelty in virtually every discussion of politics.” He added, “At least I hope we are still alarmed. I hope we haven’t accepted as normal the current state of affairs, but I fear some such acceptance becomes closer by the day.”

Flake stressed the importance to continue to adhere to his mother’s words of patience by assuming the best and looking for the good.

How did it come to this?

“There’s an old saying in politics,” Flake said, “that you don’t question the motives of your colleagues if you know the names of their children.”

Senator Flake delivered an anecdote to illustrate the past civility in Congress that he fears has recently eroded.

“In the end I would have had to stand on a campaign stage with the president while he ridiculed some of my colleagues while people shouted ‘Lock her up!’ I would have had to have been okay with that, just smiled and clapped, and I couldn’t do it.”

During his early time in Congress, he introduced a bill that would lift the Cuban travel ban. While debating the measure, one Republican opponent of the effort suggested, “The gentleman from Arizona just wants to lit the travel ban in Cuba so he can go drink mojitos on the beach there.”

A Wisconsin Democrat, Dave Obey, spoke up for Flake and demanded the statement be stricken from the session’s record. Afterward, Flake asked the senior Democrat why he’d spoken up for a junior Republican that he didn’t know. Obey said, “Oh Flake, I know you’re Mormon—I know you don’t drink. Somebody had to protect your honor.”

Flake reflected on how this bipartisanship, however minor, seems a thing of the past. “In today’s polarized shirts-and-skins environment, such inter-party generosity is rarely found. If there’s a good political fight going on, the inclination is not to break it up but to pile on.”

Why are so many congressional Republicans retiring?

Senator Flake noted that the average current senator is in their seventh year, a very low number that is both good and bad. While it suggests healthy turnover, it also leaves a void of valuable experience.

“In a way it makes getting back to the bipartisanship that we used to enjoy a little more difficult,” he said. “If you’ve been in the Senate for any less than 10 years or so…you’ve never experienced regular order or you’ve never seen the Senate work like it used to.” He noted that he was always glad to have stalwart figures like John McCain and Ted Kennedy among his congressional colleagues to fill that void and lead by example.

As for his own retirement, Flake reflected on the cost of what another once-desired term would have taken.

“For me (the cost) would have been to accept positions that I couldn’t accept and condone behavior that I couldn’t condone,” he said.

“In the end I would have had to stand on a campaign stage with the president while he ridiculed some of my colleagues while people shouted ‘Lock her up!’ I would have had to have been okay with that, just smiled and clapped, and I couldn’t do it,” he said, leading to an outbreak of applause.

The best moment of his career

When Alan Gross, a government contractor, was imprisoned in Cuba for crimes against the state, Senator Flake  visited Gross and found him at his wits’ end from his five-year incarceration. Flake returned to America and suggested immediate intervention. He and a small bipartisan group returned to Cuba shortly thereafter to retrieve Gross in “an old Cold War era spy swap.”

“I’ll never forget about a half hour into the flight (back home) the pilot came on and said, ‘We’ve now entered U.S. airspace,’ and Alan Gross stood and just threw his arms in the air and breathed in and out several times and said, ‘Now I know I’m free.’”

“That was the moment in all my years in Congress, that was the best,” Flake reflected. “It just reminded me once again what a special place this is. No matter what our problems or challenges, we’ll get there. We always have. And we’ll find a way to do it. But in order to do it, we’ve got to do it together and we’ve got to realize that our opponents are not our enemies, and to go forward.”

This event was sponsored by the Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation.

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