As a former Congressman, I strongly encourage newly elected members of Congress to attend the bipartisan orientation program sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, which will be held virtually over four days beginning on Dec. 7. The program — formally titled the “Bipartisan Program for Newly Elected Members of Congress” — fosters bipartisan civility and matters now more than ever.
It’s the 20th anniversary of my attendance at the Kennedy School’s freshman orientation program, as I journeyed to Cambridge in December 2000 as a newly elected member of the House of Representatives from Florida. The country was divided following a bitterly contested presidential election that came down to a Supreme Court ruling and 537 votes in my own state. The American people were starving for civility and bipartisanship from their government.
Regrettably, there has been some controversy about the Harvard Kennedy School’s freshman orientation program over the years. For example, in 1994, all Republicans boycotted the event claiming that Harvard was too left-leaning. In 2018, some Democrats attending the orientation complained there were CEO speakers but not enough labor union speakers.
These complaints all missed the mark. They underestimated the value of a representative keeping an open mind to all sides. After all, would it kill a Republican to hear what a left-leaning Harvard professor has to say about improving access to higher education for poorer students? Would it be so bad for a Democrat to listen to what a right-leaning CEO has to say about how to create more jobs in the private sector?
At Harvard, panel discussion topics included relations between Congress and the White House and speakers like David R. Gergen (a White House adviser for Presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon), Kenneth M. Duberstein (Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff), and Anne L. Wexler (an assistant to Jimmy Carter).
Wexler gave particularly sage advice. “Always remember that in Washington there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies,” she said. “Civility is the watchword.” As someone who served eight years in Congress, I can tell you that she was correct.