Try 1 month for 99¢
Bridging the red/blue divide (for Fanlund column_

Ambassador Tom Loftus (ambassador to Norway, 1993-1998) was the keynote speaker at an event entitled "Statesmanship" Nov. 27 at the Madison Club. It was jointly sponsored by the Wisconsin Education Association Council and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. His remarks follow:

Thank you to Bob Baxter and WEAC and Kurt Bauer and WMC.

And thanks to Godfrey Kahn.

When nominated to be an ambassador there is White House vetting, then State Department vetting, then the FBI and finally vetting by the Senate.

So then the hearing at the Foreign Relations committee. A unanimous vote. And then —nothing.

Mitch McConnell, a senator I had never heard of before, put a hold on my nomination. He wanted the State Department to fire two staff people associated with First Lady Hillary Clinton.

Thank goodness those days are over.

OK. "Statesmanship." WEAC and WMC were trying for a title that meant bipartisan without saying the word bipartisan — WEAC for fear a union boss would cut off the supply of cigars and WMC for fear the Koch brothers would cancel the credit card.

When Tommy Thompson was elected the first time in 1986, he had defeated an incumbent governor, Tony Earl, and faced a Legislature where both houses were controlled by the other party with big majorities.

The exact situation the people of Wisconsin voted for Nov. 6: divided government.

The four years of the first Thompson administration when he was governor and I was the speaker (speaker, 1983-1991) of the Assembly were the most productive four years of divided government in Wisconsin's history.

Ah ha. You are thinking that is because Tommy was special and I was a brilliant leader.

The Tommy Thompson elected in 1986 was Dr. No. The saint from Elroy came later. And I became the Machiavelli of nice because it was necessary and my nature.

So there was an evolution but it had a history.

At the start of the session before Tommy was elected governor — he was the minority leader — the day in the Assembly when the members are sworn in and the speaker is elected, Tommy Thompson took the floor and asked all of the Republicans to vote for Loftus as the speaker.

So all the Democrats voted for me as did all the Republicans, a first in Assembly history.

I started my remarks by saying, "The minority leader and I pledge an opportunity for the Assembly to proceed in a bipartisan manner. It is up to you the members whether you take advantage of the opportunity. As always we will try to proceed in a civilized manner."

You can't get more bipartisan than that! How did it happen?

Well, actually, I called Tommy and we made a deal. I would give the Republicans one more seat on the Joint Finance Committee, the seat they deserved because of their growing numbers, and in return he would ask his caucus to vote for me.

My knowledge and his knowledge of the history and psychology of the Assembly was such at this point we knew this would make the place better, more civilized, with less rancor.

We did not want the rancor between the two parties that we witnessed in the sessions prior to the time he became minority leader and I became speaker.

Also that session we formed a special Assembly committee on the future of the UW System co-chaired by the two of us. We traveled to almost every campus. Gave opening remarks and then listened.

We did this so many times that at one stop we agreed he would give my opening remarks and I would give his. No one noticed — although a Republican in the audience did come up to me and say I was starting to make a lot more sense.

So we knew each other. We were friends.

Being an ambassador means going to a foreign country and being a professional friend.

I was a politician for 14 years and a diplomat for the same, and the difference between politics and diplomacy is that in diplomacy the food is a lot better.

There is never a meeting or negotiation without a lunch or dinner to get to know the other. And then the meeting.

I came to Oslo one month after the handshake on the White House lawn between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat agreeing to the Oslo Accords peace process.

My diplomatic baptism came when I was to represent the president at a dinner with Yasser Arafat. He had been our terrorist a month ago. No problem.

Arafat came in the reception line, took my hand, and my arm, and ... didn't let go.

We shook hands until the last TV camera left.

The Russian ambassador and I agreed that every month we would have a private lunch. Just the two of us and the wire taps. Vodka was featured.

Bipartisanship happens when leaders decide it should happen. Booze helps.

Tony Evers and Robin Vos have to have a personal relationship. They owe it to the rest of us. If they do good things will follow.

I know from experience it is hard to attack a friend in the newspaper — you all remember newspapers?

In 1983 Gov. Lee Dreyfus asked me to join him on Wisconsin's first trade mission to Communist China. This was early on — he slept in Nixon's bed and I slept in Kissinger's bed. We were quite new at this.

As a gift we took Wisconsin cheese — yes, to one billion lactose-intolerant people we took cheddar. Thank goodness the head of Wisconsin ginseng growers was with us, as his gifts were quickly substituted for the cheese.

Dreyfus and I became lifelong friends.

After Tommy was elected governor and I was the speaker — and planning to run against him — we went on a trade mission to Israel together. There I met Shimon Peres and I was to meet him four more times in Oslo during negotiations. Always a lunch first.

So how does divided government work?

Tony Evers is Wisconsin's most famous euchre player.

Divided government is like a game of euchre, which is played with partners.

Think of Tony Evers and the Democrats in the Legislature as one pair of partners. The opposing partners are Speaker Robin Vos and Sen. Scott Fitzgerald.

The cards have now been dealt. Trump is established. Let us say it is hearts. The highest card any one can have is the jack of hearts. This is the right bower.

In Wisconsin the governor always has the right bower. He can propose a budget that includes anything and then he has a veto power such that he can veto anything.

The Democrats have a few face cards. The Republicans have a couple of aces.

Appreciate these insights? Get Cap Times opinion sent daily to your inbox

However, the minority party, the Democrats, have a partner, the governor, who always deals. He proposes a budget and when the Legislature passes a budget he can veto any little or big thing he doesn't like.

Tony Evers has never played a game of euchre where he always had the right bower. It won't take much time for him to get used to this.

As soon as one partner tries to shoot the moon —  take all the tricks alone without a partner —the odds are he will get bumped — penalized and likely will not try that again.

I will end with a story on statesmanship.

I was in my embassy office in Oslo. It overlooks the palace. It was noon, and I was just about to leave to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony starting at one o'clock where Nelson Mandela would be awarded the prize.

My assistant buzzed me and said Nelson Mandela would like to speak to me. I said to myself "Oh no, what have we done that no one has bothered to tell be about?"

He thanked me for taking his call. I stood up to take the call.

He asked if I could meet him in his suite in the Grand Hotel one hour after the ceremony.

I was there on the dot. He poured tea. He took milk. I took milk.

He had notes. I had not a clue.

The subject of textiles was on the agenda in the trade negotiations that would lead up to establishment of the World Trade Organization.

At this point Mr. Mandela is not the president of South Africa. That election is six months away.

He said the U.S. position on textiles would end the jobs of tens of thousands of people — he could not hope to be a success starting with that.

I called the secret number. Yes — there is one — and got the U.S. trade representative on the phone in 10 minutes. He was Mickey Kantor, a friend from the campaign.

I said to him: "I am with Nelson Mandela in his suite in the Grand Hotel in Oslo and he has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and he wants a change in our position on textiles and I told him I was sure we would do this. Here, I will put him on the phone."

We did. I sent President Clinton a note telling him not to fire Mickey. I said it was my doing and I told Nelson Mandela it was your idea, Mr. President. He owes you one.

But that is not the statesmanship part. The Nobel Peace prize had two winners that year. The other was Willem de Klerk, the president of the apartheid government of South Africa. He had negotiated an end to his government and apartheid with Nelson Mandela.

Think of that. Is it too much to ask for a little bipartisanship in Wisconsin?

It would help if WEAC and WMC found a way to reward the middle road going forward.

See how this works? Wine, then the speech. Then more wine.

Thank you.

Tom Loftus of Sun Prairie is a former member of the UW Board of Regents and speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, and was the Democratic candidate for governor in 1990. He was ambassador to Norway from 1993 to 1998. From 1998 to 2005 he was the special adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.