Sunday, January 27, 2013

Christina Nuckols: Cokie Roberts' cure for D.C. incivility

Christina Nuckols

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Christina Nuckols grew up in the Shenandoah Valley and worked at several newspapers in western Virginia, including The Roanoke Times, before moving to Richmond to cover state government and politics. After 14 years at the state Capitol, she returned to Roanoke in 2011 to become the editorial page editor. christina. | 981-3377

From the RoundTable blog

I'm among the millions of National Public Radio listeners who tune in each Monday morning to get Cokie Roberts' take on the latest shenanigans at the U.S. Capitol. Although the journalist leavens her analysis with a down-to-earth sense of humor, her weekly bulletins can be rather grim.

Roberts will visit Hollins University Tuesday to speak about a happier subject, women in politics. Her 7:30 p.m. lecture at Hollins Theatre is free. Seating is first come, first served.

I won't steal her thunder on her lecture topic, but I spoke to her last week and asked her a question I'm sure she hears often. Are you just trying to ruin my week with all of that gloom and doom? Is it really that bad in Washington, D.C., or is the Capitol crowd suffering from a case of "the good old days" syndrome?

"Yes, it's bad," she said. "But of course, there's nostalgia. My father used to have a whole routine. 'Yes, the good old days! When there was an outhouse in the back yard.'"

Roberts' father, Hale Boggs, was a longtime Democratic congressman from Louisiana who rose through the ranks to become majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1971. Mother Lindy Boggs was elected to the same seat in 1973 after her husband's death and remained in office until 1991.

Having grown up at the Capitol, Roberts knows the rose-colored memories don't hold up to scrutiny. Her father was accused of being a socialist more than once. But she still has fond recollections of her childhood and a conviction that Washington was once a more civilized city.

"Everybody was running around the Capitol. Nothing was closed, no security. We all knew each other," she recalled. "It was just a much friendlier place. Kids from different parties palled around."

Roanoke plays a bit role in those memories. The Boggs clan packed up and drove between Washington and New Orleans twice each year, and the long haul included a stretch of U.S. 11 past the Star City.

It was once typical for members of Congress to bring their families with them to the Capitol, a practice that kept them grounded amid the partisan intrigues. Today, that's rare. It's expensive to own two homes, particularly if one is in the pricey D.C. suburbs. Spouses often have jobs in their home states. Even if those barriers don't exist, Roberts says, there is a "concentrated, organized campaign to demonize Washington. If you moved your family here, you were 'going Washington.'"

Although she'd like to see more children clattering up and down the marble halls of the congressional office buildings, Roberts doesn't think that alone would cure the ills of Washington. The No.1 evil gripping Congress, she said, is gerrymandering.

Roberts has been a vocal critic of the computer-generated districts that award safe seats to members of Congress, as well as state legislators, with extreme ideologies while weeding out the moderates who once could be depended upon to work toward compromise.

Virginia's state lawmakers must have known Roberts was visiting the commonwealth because they helpfully staged a demonstration last week of how pernicious gerry-mandering is. Senate Republicans rammed through an off-year redistricting plan that would put the squeeze on several of their Democratic colleagues, and in the process risked stalling out important legislation on a variety of issues.

Multiply the little melodrama going on in Richmond by 50 and you can see why the U.S.Capitol is so dysfunctional. The solution, Roberts said, is to take the process away from the partisans and allow independent state commissions to draw the maps.

Gov. Bob McDonnell established a commission to make recommendations on redistricting in 2011, but the panel had no real authority and legislators ignored it. The governor probably wishes now he'd made more of an effort to give his commission some real teeth. The fracas in Richmond will make it harder for him to win Democratic support for his transportation and education initiatives. The Republican governor, who was notified at the last minute by his GOP buddies about the scheme, is steamed. But reform won't happen until Virginia's voters start taking these partisan games personally.

"The only way you get there is people get riled up enough that they make the legislators do it right," Roberts said.

Nuckols is editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.

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