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Keith C. Burris is editor, vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers.
The obvious thing that Richard Thornburgh’s life and work should inspire us all to seek is the kind of politics he practiced. On the surface that would seem to be a moderate Republicanism that has been endangered for a long time, but is especially endangered in the age of Trump.
Moderation does not fit our current politics, in which Republican conservatism has been pushed aside by nationalist populism and Democratic liberalism by woke leftism. Our politics today is a politics of slogans, exclusion, demonization and shouting.
The bespectacled Dick Thornburgh was not a shouter.
That was not because he was soft. He was anything but. He was clear eyed and tough minded.
But shouting is not only not classy, it is not useful.
Thornburgh was interested in solutions, albeit proximate ones. He was a problem solver. He was interested in how to make government work, and work better. Not only for all, but also for, especially for, those who had not heretofore been fully seen — the disabled, for example.
As a good Republican, he was for limited government and government living within its means. But he was not against government or for dismembering government. He was for a government that made life better when it could (public education and the general welfare) and stayed out of the way when it needed to (the competitive economy).
A moderate is not one who looks for the middle of the road, but one who mitigates and out-maneuvers the extremes of our politics in order to get things done. He tunes and modulates.
Thornburgh was called “Mr. Fix-it“ in later life when he took on one-time assignments for cleaning up big organizations. But fixing and improving government, and private governance, was always his orientation. He said he enjoyed the challenge and the puzzle.
I met him once, between the end of his last term as governor and the start of his term as U.S. attorney general. He was teaching at the Kennedy School at Harvard. “How are you enjoying it,” I asked. “It’s sure not as much fun as being governor,” he said.
I don’t think he would have found the U.S. Senate much fun.
Making things and fixing things used to be essential to America — to our national character, to our economy and to our politics. The vital center in American politics and government is where professionals used to try to fix and build — and Thornburgh was a quintessential, pragmatic pro.
A pragmatist is not one who tests the wind or splits the baby, but a problem solver — the American inventor, engineer, entrepreneur.
Between elections, we used to do our politics this way. And we could again, if we wanted to.
As our editorial on Jan. 1 says, we ought not to treat the Thornburgh model as unattainable. We could set the politics of demonization and division aside and make progress, if we gathered the common will to do so.
So, let’s hang on to the Thornburgh model.
But let’s also be clear about what it is. It is not about splitting the baby but about finding the best mother. It is not about splitting the kitty but about changing the game and increasing the wealth.
Yes, we could use Thornburgh’s approach in the Republican Party today. It would renew the party.
Yes, his pragmatic moderation is everything our politics once was, at its best, and could be again.
But his politics was not the politics of least resistance or the sweet spot in an opinion poll. Thornburgh’s politics was dynamic. It was the politics of know-how — problem-solving, fixing what is wrong and expanding on what is good; building up instead of tearing down.