Discussing politics and religion at the dinner table

Several years ago we had a screening and dinner party for C.C. Goldwater, the granddaughter of Barry. She had just … Continued

Several years ago we had a screening and dinner party for C.C. Goldwater, the granddaughter of Barry. She had just done a documentary film for HBO about her grandfather. Barry Goldwater was my parents’ closest friend. In fact, he gave me my first job when I was 16, working in his Senate office on Capitol Hill.

When his wife, Peggy, became ill and moved back to Arizona, Barry lived with my parents. He was like a surrogate father to me. When he met my husband, Ben Bradlee, who was the editor of The Washington Post, everyone simply assumed that the conservative Republican former presidential candidate and the Watergate editor would never hit it off. But they became fast friends. In fact, Barry was one of Ben’s best sources toward the end of Watergate when Richard Nixon was about to resign. They even did speaking gigs together.

The tribute film was brilliant and poignant and really showed what an extraordinary man Barry Goldwater was in so many respects, but also what a great American he was. We had a large tent and I invited half Republicans and half Democrats, something you rarely see in Washington these days. They all came. I was seated next to Republican Sen. John Warner from Virginia, who had been close to Barry. Everyone marveled at the fact that Goldwater and his rival for the presidency, Jack Kennedy, were actually buddies and that at one point they discussed flying together on the same plane, while campaigning against each other. At the end of dinner both John Warner and I, like many of the guests, were in tears. What had made us cry? As Warner said that night, “It will never be that way again.”

What he was talking about was the intractable rancor and divisiveness in Washington today. You have a congressman calling the president a liar in mid-sentence during an address on Capitol Hill. You have others actually saying that they want Obama to fail. You have name-calling and ad hominem attacks on a regular basis. You have politicians and administration officials questioning each other’s patriotism and in some cases even accusing those who don’t agree with them of treason.

Two weeks ago, an online reader wondered how one entertains both Republicans and Democrats in Washington at the same event without having all that tension.

I was struck by the question because I have never thought of entertaining in that way. But when I considered whom I might invite to my own parties, it became clear that some people wouldn’t fit well together. It made me sad to think that John Warner could have been right. It may never be the same again. However, I refuse to give up, despite the toxic atmosphere in Washington spilling into social events.

There’s an old saying that you should never discuss politics or religion at dinner parties. I disagree. I think you can talk about money and sex as well. It’s all about how you bring up these things, which are after all on everyone’s minds. I believe in dialogue, whether it’s interfaith, interpolitics or anything else. And I know, dialogue just sounds boring. It’s not. I believe in trying to learn and understand the other person’s point of view. Particularly on subjects about politics and religion, it is always a mistake to ascribe evil motives to someone just because that person has a different point of view. Today Republicans accuse Democrats of being socialists and communists (doesn’t that sound so retro) and Democrats accuse Republicans of being fascists and demagogues. The terms McCarthyism and Nazism are much too frequently bandied about.

My experience living in Washington for some decades is that the majority of people who come here to work for the government are idealistic and care deeply about their country. That doesn’t mean that power, ego and money don’t often corrupt. Those who live and work here just believe in different ways to make it a better place. What I find, though, is that people will generally open up and relax if they feel listened to and respected.

I’ve been at the table with Dick Cheney and a group of bloodthirsty liberal journalists, and everyone had a rollicking time talking about fly-fishing, of all things. The Rumsfelds and Ronald Reagan loved talking with anyone about the movies. Nancy Pelosi, Pat Leahy, Dianne Feinstein, Susan Collins, John Kerry, Orrin Hatch and John McCain, to name a few, can keep a conversation going, regardless of political persuasions, after-hours. People have so much in common: children, faith (or lack of faith), aging parents, relatives at war, pet charities — or even pets! Of course, when all else fails, there’s nobody who won’t lean in when the topic turns to sex.

I’ve been in recent discussions at dinner parties among friends where people disagreed vehemently on Afghanistan, health care, the economy and whether Brad and Angelina would split up, but ultimately they respected one another’s point of view.

Nobody understood this better than Teddy Kennedy. In fact, all of the Kennedys have been good at befriending political adversaries. Teddy never impugned another’s motives for disagreeing with him. We had a dinner once for the conservative prime minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney, and his wife, Mila. Teddy and Vicky Kennedy were there, and by the end of the evening Brian and Teddy were arm-in-arm singing Irish songs.

That’s the way it used to be. It’s the way it should be and can be again. I, for one, refuse to give up.

Sally Quinn
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  • greyhound1

    I wish it would happen – that people of whatever religious or political persuasion could ‘be nice': skip the hyperbole and ad hominem attacks, stop ascribing the worst possible motives to people who happen to have a different opinion. I’m just not sure it’s possible any more.

  • samxstreampools

    “Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples saying, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments; And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues; And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi! Rabbi!! But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in Heaven.Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves’.”