A president of one party realizes that the recent war had wreaked havoc on a foreign region. To repair things he reaches across the aisle to work with one of the opposition's most partisan members.
President Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi? Not likely. Bush and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden? Doubtful.
Stumped? It was President Harry Truman working with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur Vandenberg to get Congress to pass the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe after World War II.
Presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama talk about the need to work across party lines, yet those instances are more the exception than the rule.
When John F. Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage, he focused on members of the Senate who went outside their comfort zone to take bold positions. Here are three political partnerships that set aside partisan rancor to serve the public good. Perhaps these examples will inspire similar acts of unity as the candidates battle their way toward November.
Harry Truman & Arthur Vandenberg
Arthur Vandenberg, whom New York Times columnist James Reston once described as a "big, loud, vain and self-important man who could strut sitting down," for years held an isolationist world view that was typical of Midwest lawmakers of both parties. But his views evolved so he would eventually be known as the author of the phrase "politics must stop at the water's edge."
The crush of events during World War II had a deep impact on Vandenberg, as they did on most Americans. But his willingness to put partisanship aside resulted from the personal touch of presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Both leaders, fully aware that the senior senator from Michigan influenced the votes of many of his GOP colleagues, dispatched aides who were responsible for Vandenberg's care and feeding.
The attention paid off. In January 1945, he spoke on the Senate floor and conceded that while he "once believed in our own self-reliance," in light of recent events in Europe and Asia, "I do not believe that any nation hereafter can immunize itself by its own exclusive action." That was just the beginning.
When Roosevelt died three months later, Truman ratcheted things up several notches, both while the GOP was in the minority in 1945 and 1946 and when it took control in 1947. With his party in charge, Vandenberg became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Though the two Midwesterners had never been personally or politically close when both were in the Senate, Truman saw to it that Vandenberg had input on key legislation and enjoyed access to much of the diplomatic cable traffic.
According to Walter Isaacson's and Evan Thomas' seminal book on that era, The Wise Men, Under Secretary of State Robert Lovett often dropped by Vandenberg's Connecticut Avenue apartment on his way home from work to have drinks and share the latest information about diplomatic and military issues.
At Vandenberg's urging, Truman increased Congress' oversight of the implementation of the Marshall Plan, included special provisions boosting the level of support to Greece and Turkey and named one of Vandenberg's friends, business executive Paul Hoffman, the program's first administrator.
Even in the heat of the 1948 campaign, Truman did not forget Vandenberg's efforts. Truman rejected the pleadings of national and state party officials to criticize Vandenberg as part of the overall Republican problem.
"When I was in Michigan, they wanted me to light into Sen. Vandenberg," Truman told Merle Miller in the oral biography Plain Speaking. "But I wouldn't do it. He'd supported the Marshall Plan; if it hadn't been for him, it might never have been approved in the Senate, and I wasn't about to forget that and start attacking him, and I didn't. It made a lot of those birds in Michigan unhappy, but I wouldn't do it."
History judged Vandenberg kindly, as well. In 2000, members of the Senate voted to place Vandenberg's photograph in the Senate Reception Room, alongside those of such giants as John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.
Lyndon Johnson & Everett Dirksen
Lyndon B. Johnson's prowess as a legislative dealmaker was so well-recognized that the third volume of Robert Caro's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of him was titled Master of the Senate. Depending on the circumstance, his methods of persuasion ranged from including a member's pet project in legislation to cornering a wavering lawmaker and poking his finger into the man's chest.
Although Johnson was an extraordinarily partisan lawmaker, who started his climb up the leadership ladder as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he knew the virtues of working across the aisle. That skill served him well when he set his sights on civil rights legislation, which is often cited as his main domestic policy achievement.
Most of President Johnson's domestic agenda passed relatively easily along party line votes during his first three years in office, especially after his landslide victory in 1964. Columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote in their acclaimed 1966 biography, Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power, that in 1965 there was a mood in Congress "that approached slavish timidity and obedience to the merest presidential suggestion."
Civil rights, however, was a different matter. As both a senator and president, Johnson was forced to work with Republicans on civil rights thanks to a strong faction within his own party that favored the status quo, which then included widespread segregation and discrimination.
Johnson's strategy was to forge alliances with key Republican leaders. Just days after Johnson took office, during what has become known as the "thick bacon breakfast," House Minority Leader Charles Halleck reassured Johnson of his commitment to civil rights, a pledge he'd made earlier to President Kennedy.
But the president faced a tougher situation in the Senate. Even though Democrats held 67 seats, close to a third of those lawmakers were from southern states and most of them were likely to oppose the measure.
To pull in enough Republican support, Johnson turned to his longtime friend and occasional political ally, Everett Dirksen—and the Illinois senator did not disappoint. Known for his grandiloquent oratory and mellifluous voice, Dirksen maneuvered behind the scenes to round up the needed votes on his side.
"I trust the time will never come in my political career when the waters of partisanship will flow so swift and so deep so as to obscure my estimate of the national interest," Dirksen noted during his floor speech. "I trust I can disenthrall myself from all bias, from all prejudice, from all irrelevancies, from all immaterial matters, and see clearly and cleanly what the issue is and then render an independent judgment."
After 57 days of Senate debate, the Senate voted 71-29 to end debate and passed the measure 73-27.
The next year, fresh from his victory at the ballot box, Johnson gave a nationally televised prime-time address in front of Congress, in which he evoked memories of the prejudice faced by the Mexican-American students he had taught in Texas 28 years earlier.
"I want to be the president who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election," said Johnson, who was generally better known for his behind-the-scenes maneuverings than for being an inspired orator.
Evans and Novak described the speech as "the zenith of the first three years of his presidency, and it achieved that elusive rapport with people that is so vital to any presidency."
The public contacted members of Congress in large numbers and the measure passed later that year by broad margins in both the Senate and the House.
Bill Clinton & Newt Gingrich
In the mid-1990s, Democrats loathed few people more than Newt Gingrich. The Georgia congressman's shrewd tactics and fiery rhetoric aimed at liberals had helped his party wrest back power after more than 40 years. Meanwhile, President Clinton had been in bitter fights with Republicans, both personal (Whitewater, Lincoln bedroom) and political (health care, welfare reform). His acidic relationship with Gingrich and his allies had even led to two government shutdowns in 1995 over the budget.
"It was a bruising battle," Steve Gillon recalls in his book, The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich and the Rivalry that Defined a Generation. "They realized the ideological struggle between liberal and conservative was going to be over the budget."
But things had changed by 1997.
Clinton was eyeing his legacy, realizing he didn't yet have any significant legislative accomplishments. He viewed balancing the budget as critical to making Democrats the party of fiscal responsibility. Meanwhile, Gingrich was "a revolutionary who wanted to be remembered as a statesman," writes Gillon. The Speaker was also trying to rehabilitate his image after being sidelined by an ethics scandal.
As luck would have it, the country's coffers were overflowing, giving both men a rare opportunity. But seizing it was no easy feat.
Conservatives in Congress were horrified at the image of their leader negotiating with the hated Bill Clinton. Similarly, House Democrats were amazed that Clinton was putting his faith in a man they detested. Both camps feared that a deal between the two men would disadvantage their party.
Clinton's first step was to appoint banker Erskine Bowles as his chief of staff. While neither Gingrich nor Clinton trusted each other, they both trusted Bowles. The North Carolinian, who had earlier served in the Clinton White House, became the critical go-between during months of fierce negotiations.
Gingrich, meanwhile, was urging conservatives not to pick "artificial fights" with the president. "If he wants to join our huddle, welcome him in."
When the budget passed in August 1997, both sides declared victory. Gingrich got his party to fund certain domestic programs that Clinton wanted, while Clinton talked Democrats into certain tax cuts that Gingrich desired. It was the first balanced budget in more than 30 years. Moreover, the bill provided the largest tax cut in almost two decades while simultaneously authorizing $24 billion in new health care programs for children.
Afterward, both sides saw their poll numbers go up. And some in Washington even expected that a new period of bipartisanship would follow. But then came Monica Lewinsky, and all hope of cooperation vanished.
Claude R. Marx is author of a chapter on media and politics in The Sixth Year Itch, edited by Larry Sabato.