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Politicians of the past were willing to stand up for bipartisanship

Nov 8, 2017

A year ago today, Michigan and the nation stunned the world by electing a President whose platform essentially repudiated a bipartisan legacy of steadily increasing international ties on issues from military affairs to the environment to trade.

My guess is that few now know much about a Michigan Republican whose career was the exact reverse of Donald Trump’s, but who was a giant of a statesman when our current president was born. Arthur H. Vandenberg started his political career as a dyed-in-the-wool isolationist, a provincial newspaper editor who managed to get himself appointed to the U.S. Senate.

Arthur Vandenberg
Credit Wikicommons

There, his outlook was initially so predictable and bourgeois that he was compared to Sinclair Lewis’s anti-intellectual businessman George Babbitt. But the man from Grand Rapids grew to become not only a titan of the Senate, but a man who helped convince his party and the nation that isolationism was economically and politically obsolete.

He was the architect of the now nearly forgotten spirit of bipartisan cooperation, especially in foreign policy, that was a hallmark of the Cold War. He was a man who flirted with running for president, but never quite did -- partly for a reason I found stunning.

Hendrik “Hank” Meijer, the executive chairman of the company that bears his name, has worked for almost 30 years on the first modern biography of the man Edward R. Murrow called “the central pivot” of American foreign policy.

His just-published, Arthur Vandenberg: The Man in the Middle of the American Century, gives us a vivid portrait of a man capable of something many of us are not: He had the intellectual honesty to admit that he had been dead wrong.

In his late fifties, after America was forced into a Second World War he’d bitterly opposed, Vandenberg realized that his long-held belief in isolationism was a mistake.

With that, Vandenberg threw himself and his considerable clout in the Senate into saving the world. He was a very influential delegate to the convention that organized the United Nations.

He, not President Truman, was the man who got the Marshall Plan and the resolution founding NATO through a distrustful Republican Congress. And beginning with an epic conference on Mackinac Island, Vandenberg took the lead in converting his party from isolationism to internationalism; not for nothing was he called “the indispensable man.”

Yet he was also a very human one. Photographs of Vandenberg make him seem the quintessential stuffed shirt; a white-haired imperial figure chomping a cigar in a three-piece suit. But his torrid affair with the wife of a diplomat who may have been a British spy may have been one reason he never made a serious run at the presidency.

Though I’ve been waiting for this book for years, this may be the time it is needed most. “Decades later, the qualities that defined him are again in demand,” Meijer concluded.

The key to Vanderberg, he believes, was his belief in a national philosophy of “enlightened self-interest” and a “mastery of bipartisan collaboration at a time when his fellow citizens hungered for direction.”

Hank Meijer will be discussing his book tonight at 6:30 at a free public event at the Library of Michigan in Lansing. If I weren’t teaching, I would be there. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.