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JOSEPH N. BELL

Breaching the Barriers Between Adversaries

October 07, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

Some years ago, I was invited to observe one of Robert Maynard Hutchins' think-tank sessions in Santa Barbara. The issue on the table was price fixing in the steel industry, and members of the discussion group included several steel corporation presidents along with high-ranking officials from the federal government and the pointy-headed liberals who hung out with Hutchins.

Although I can't remember the details of what was said that day, I remember vividly the point that struck me most: These men--many of whom were natural philosophical adversaries--assumed prior knowledge on the part of everyone around that table and started their discussion at a point far beyond public discourse of the day.

There was no baloney or posturing.

They seemed to be saying, loud and clear: "We know we're talking with intellectual peers who also share our level of sophistication, so we won't insult anyone's intelligence by trying to defend places that are clearly indefensible of postulate positions that are clearly inaccurate."

Before and after that time, as a writer for major national magazines, I profiled public figures with whom I was philosophically suspect and who knew that very quickly. This gave them two choices: to stiff me or take me into their circle. Time and again, these people would test me and then decide it was best to deal with me directly.

This wasn't always comfortable because I believe in the adversary position, but it was certainly edifying. (I'm not talking about an hour's conversation over lunch; I'm talking about two or three days spent with a subject, which was the norm with magazines when I was doing this kind of writing.)

For example, after I spent two days with a group of high-powered surgeons with whom I was doing a story on malpractice insurance, they talked freely in front of me among themselves about mistakes that go on in operating rooms.

After I spent several days with Billy Graham, he relaxed sufficiently with me that right after firing up a huge audience in Sacramento and before going to the follow-up session where he gave absolution to those members of the audience who had come forward, he poked his head in the window of his car where his driver and I were listening to the ballgame and asked breathlessly: "What's the score?" And after following Danny Kaye around for the better part of a week, we came unexpectedly on a group of children touring CBS, and Kaye--whose persona, especially for UNICEF, was relating to kids--stiffed them outrageously. Things like that, repeated many times.

These thoughts all come to mind because of a lunch I attended recently at the Pacific Club in Newport Beach. I was the guest of a group called the County Club, organized originally a half-dozen years ago by Democratic angel and one-time state party chairman Richard O'Neill to enable Orange Countians of various political faiths to break bread together and listen to the people they have frequently been instrumental in putting into office. The speaker the day I visited was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Lomita).

Although the motivating force behind the group comes primarily from Democrats, the assembled members--about 40 in number--seemed to be divided rather equally between the two parties. Because I was there as a guest and not a reporter, I feel some constraint about being very specific. But within my knowledge of Orange County politics, certainly a good many of the movers and shakers from both parties appear to be members of this group.

Once again, what impressed me most was the absence of partisanship in this social setting. I don't mean this to sound conspiratorial. I'm not suggesting that these kingmakers--transcending political philosophy--get together and impose our public officials on us. But I was surprised at the lack of adversarial feeling. Rohrabacher in his remarks said a number of things that set my teeth on edge, but O'Neill was nodding away at the head table beside him and the questions posed after his talk were remarkably mild and--in some instances--downright grandmotherly. Adversarial, to me, doesn't mean angry or rude; it simply means a sharp delineation of differing points of view that forces a dialogue to a higher, crisper level.

I came away pleased at the opportunity to share this experience by remembering, at the same time, all those other experiences in which there seemed to be a kind of shared civilized elitism. It's almost as if the discourse is saying: "Now you and I can deal with each other at this level, but the great unwashed Out There lack our knowledge and sophistication and therefore have to be dealt with at a much lower level."

That may be true, but it makes me decidedly uncomfortable. I'm all for civilized exchanges of views that are neither shrill nor angry. (God knows, the recent presidential campaign certainly didn't qualify on that count.) But I think they should also be adversarial. Too much schmoozing fogs issues.

Some years ago, I was the plaintiff in a libel case (which, not incidentally, I won) and my lawyer and I went to lunch together right after the opposing lawyer had savaged me in court with a lot of false--and what I considered malicious--statements. He came into the restaurant and my lawyer suggested we join him for coffee. I was both astonished and horrified. This was carrying civility beyond the place where I could comfortably countenance it. When I declined, my lawyer was as irritated with me as I was with him. I had violated one of the rules of the club.

I had probably violated one of my own rules too. I had personalized what should have been an impersonal dispute: two adversarial parties presenting opposing views as effectively as possible. Somewhere in between is a middle ground that demands stout disagreement without rancor. Maybe the County Club has found it and I need to.

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