Seeking WFB.

December 5, 2012

Originally published in the paper of record, David Welch’s recent essay is below – sans editing, because he hit the nail right on the obvious and common sensical head.

It is a shame that William F. Buckley Jr. passed away in 2008. The conservative movement could use him — or someone like him — right now.

In the 1960s, Buckley, largely through his position at the helm of National Review, displayed political courage and sanity by taking on the John Birch Society, an influential anti-Communist group whose members saw conspiracies everywhere they looked.

Fast forward half a century. The modern-day Birchers are the Tea Party. By loudly espousing extreme rhetoric, yet holding untenable beliefs, they have run virtually unchallenged by the Republican leadership, aided by irresponsible radio talk-show hosts and right-wing pundits. While the Tea Party grew, respected moderate voices in the party were further pushed toward extinction. Republicans need a Buckley to bring us back.

Buckley often took issue with liberal-minded members of his party, like Nelson A. Rockefeller, and he gave some quarter to opponents of civil rights legislation. But he placed great faith in the Republican establishment and its brand of mainstream conservatism, which he called the “politics of reality.”

But his biggest challenge came from the far right, primarily in the form of the John Birch Society. During the 1950s and early ’60s, Birchers demanded that the government rid itself of supposed Communists — including, according its founder, Robert Welch (no relation, thank heaven), Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Buckley’s formula for conservative success rested on “the most right, viable candidate who could win.” He saw the danger the Birchers posed to the party, and in 1962 he wrote a devastating essay in National Review that condemned them for essentially calling on the party to commit political suicide. He dismissed Welch’s outrageous views as “drivel” and “removed from common sense.” The essay relegated the Birch Society to pariah status. Buckley may have saved the nascent conservative movement from the dustbin of history.

The absence of a Buckley-esque gatekeeper today has allowed extreme, untested candidates to take center stage and then commit predictable gaffes and issue moon-bat pronouncements. Democrats have used those statements to tarnish the Republican Party as anti-woman, anti-poor, anti-gay, anti-immigrant extremists. Buckley’s conservative pragmatism has been lost, along with the presidency and seats in Congress.

Republicans must now identify those who can bring adult supervision back to the party. Replacing Buckley — an erudite and prolific force of nature — with one individual is next to impossible. But we don’t need to. We can face the extremists with credible, respected leaders who have offered conservative policies that led to Republican victories.

Dare I say it, or should I just whisper the word? We need “the Establishment.” We need officials like former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, operatives like Karl Rove and Republican Party institutions.

Mr. Christie and Mr. Bush are ideally suited to drive extremists from the party. While some say Mr. Christie’s praise of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy hurt him politically, in fact it cemented his role as party truth-teller. In conjunction with his spirited defense of Sohail Mohammed, a State Superior Court judge who was absurdly attacked for allegedly wanting to impose Shariah law, Mr. Christie should be celebrated by sane people everywhere.

Mr. Bush, who once bravely stated that Ronald Reagan would have a hard time fitting in with today’s Republican Party, likewise has the position and gravitas to weigh in and weed out the Todd Akins and Sharron Angles of the world.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Christie best represent realistic, levelheaded conservatism. Both have crossed the aisle numerous times to the betterment of their states. Yet they enjoy sterling reputations in the party. This occurs when common sense trumps partisanship. This is not to say that the only way forward is by tying the party to bipartisanship. But it does mean a willingness to fight those who claim the name of the party but not its ethos.

In a recent interview, the bête noir of both the left and the Tea Party right, Mr. Rove, suggested that his organization, American Crossroads, might become active in Republican primaries during the next election cycle. If Crossroads and the old-guard Republican committees sided with sensible candidates early on in the primaries and, if need be, ran ads against extreme members of the party, they could do much to bring some sense back to the Republican landscape.

Our modern-day Buckley’s denouncement of once fringe Tea Party candidates should be forthright. Whether it’s Bush, Christie or a party institution, there must be one clear message: no unserious candidate need apply. Party leaders should seize this moment as Buckley did decades ago. It wasn’t easy. He lost subscribers and donors. But inveighing Buckley went, weathering the storm to keep his party poised for future victories.

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Vidal Re-visited.

August 3, 2012

An earlier post this week (below) dealt sufficiently with the passing of Gore Vidal. That done, this one will be brief.

During their lives, Mr. Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. engaged in a running cultural debate that sometimes spilled the banks of civility and swirled into litigation. Each represented an opposite swathe of politics, though each represented his swathe in similarly patrician tones and wordy verse. As years went by, the contention was reduced from roiling boil to gentle simmer – at least, it was for Mr. Buckley. He left their enmity in the 1970s.

Mr. Vidal did not: having outlived his old adversary, he wrote on the occasion of Mr. Buckley’s death “RIP WFB – In Hell.” Not only hateful, but terribly un-literary for a man who paid his bills by writing.

Mr. Vidal’s inability to let by-gones be by-gones might have owed, at the end, to his own historical inadequacy: he was always a gnattering cultural and political critic, but never a mover in his own right.

On the other hand, Mr. Buckley launched an intellectual journal that exists still, and which propelled Ronald Reagan into the White House; the nascent conservatism he fostered gave rise to David Brooks, George Will and more. He hosted a political talk show, Firing Line, for three decades. He was awarded a Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Busch. He did not observe politics; he helped shape it. And when he died, it was an event. Newspapers and print media carried Mr. Buckley’s picture for weeks. A memorial service was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan; Henry Kissinger spoke.

Mr. Vidal, conversely, left America decades before his death to live on the Amalfi coast. When he died, most people hadn’t thought of him in years. No sitting president called his family to offer condolences. No relative’s best-selling memoir about his exploits was written. His obituarial star burned brightly for 24 hours, then sputtered and went black.

But somewhere aboard a sailboat high above, Mr. Buckley may have noticed his old rival’s departure from the stage, and politely dipped his sails. He could afford to be gracious; in the battle for relevancy, he had won by a landslide.


Philistines Rampant

August 30, 2011

It’s been said before, and better, but it bears repeating: the Tea Party is a cancer on the Republican organization. Though hopefully not malignant, it ain’t good. And it’s unsightly.

When the sainted Bill Buckley first won prominence, one of his earliest tasks was to run the nuts out of conservatism. Chiefly: the John Birch Society. Once things were sufficiently fumigated, National Review and he helped elect President Reagan who, in turn, introduced the idea of “big tent” Republican politics. That is, the tent was big enough for everybody (except the loonies, who are to the Republicans what Al Qaeda is to Islam).

What followed was the nascence of the modern GOP, not to mention national prosperity and international laurels.

Now, a band of Fascist pirates in conservative clothing has hijacked the tent by shouting down the moderates and seems intent on a Bachmann caliphate. Loonies will be loonies – they insist on it – but their war whoops are stealing thunder from legitimate Republican contenders for the presidency. That is, candidates who have some grasp of American history and geography.

Even John McCain recently faced a stiff re-election challenge from a Tea Party candidate in Arizona.

What’s more, Tea Party grandstanding detracts from deserving conservative thinkers and stains the entire right. Who steals my purse steals trash… but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed. [Othello, act 3, scene 3.]  

With Mr. Buckley having ascended to harpsichord music and regattas eternal, who will cleanse and re-dedicate the temple? His protege and former National Review staffer David Brooks, now of The New York Times, gave it a shot when he criticized Rush Limbaugh in that paper. The probem was, Mr. Brooks’ column reaches about a quarter as many left-leaning intellectuals as Mr. Limbaugh’s radio program reaches hard-right fundamentalists.

Which meant, ironically, when Mr. Limbaugh denounced Mr. Brooks on-air, Mr. Brooks was probably one of the few in the audience who had ever heard of David Brooks (or the Times).

And anway, Mr. Brooks (though a wizard – albeit of a lesser stripe than his mentor – with words) isn’t the dynamo Bill Buckley was. He’s a scholar, not a general.

The challenge in re-directing the flock is that the most vocal members of it have sworn off intellectualism. Or, for that matter, almost any -ism. That stuff sounds too much like Socialism. (Which they venemously denounce, despite cashing Social Security checks and claiming Medicare benefits).

The whole production, as Mr. Buckley might have written, is simply too much for words. Here’s hoping for a conservative spring… Al Aribya coverage optional.

Mad Tea Party

"But, dear... this tea party is mad, mad, mad!"


WFB: Fads Be Damned.

July 29, 2011

Excerpted piratically, but gratefully, from National Review:

(From a question and answer booklet issued by The Alumni Council of Princeton University, June 1, 1958.)

QUESTION: Why don’t Princeton undergraduates look as glossy as they used to? Is it because the admissions people frown on well dressed, social-looking young men?

ANSWER: Certainly not. Since the war, Princeton undergraduates, like those in other colleges, have gone out of their way to wear beat-up clothes. It’s a fad the GI’s started.

If I had been permitted to butt in with the next question, I’d have asked, “What would you do if the next fad called on the students to go about naked?” The answer would presumably have been as evasive as the first, probably something like, “My dear sir, there are laws against indecent exposure.” To be sure, and there are none against wearing sweat shirts in a venerable university eating hall, or in a classroom where the lecture that morning may be on the age of elegance; none, even, governing dress in fraternity houses where, it is commonly supposed, it is the elite who meet to eat. The reason? Rules affecting a student’s dress are . . .

But let me relate an experience. At Yale, ten years ago, there gadded about a distinguished professor of philosophy with a mania for equalitarianism. Notwithstanding, he was himself a man of personal taste, of imposing countenance and erect bearing, and one day he decided it would be reasonable to expect members of his college (undergraduate Yale is quartered in ten colleges) to come to dinner at the college dining hall dressed in coat and tie. Accordingly, he laid down the edict. Hours later, a student had summoned fellow members of the college student council in extraordinary session to devise appropriate means of resisting the act of tyranny. In due course the president of the council appeared before the guileless master and announced that it was the consensus of the student council that the ordinance he had passed was undemocratic. The master did not reply (such a reply would not have occurred to him, even as a lascivious possibility) “Tell the student council to go—eat democratically some place else.” No, our professor of Philosophy simply rescinded his order, aghast at the revelation that, albeit subconsciously, he had entertained an Undemocratic Thought.

It is the knout of Democracy that is most generally used to flail those who believe the administrators of a college are entitled to specify, nay should specify, norms of undergraduate dress. The economic argument, implausible though it increasingly becomes, is still widely used. It holds that coats and ties are expensive, that therefore the uniform requirement that they be worn daily, and hence worn out prematurely, is a form of regressive taxation. The argument is unrealistic because in point of fact ties do not cost very much, and coats made out of a tough material will outlive even a pauper’s inclination to wear them.

It is something else, really, that prevents the deans and masters from acting. They fear, in an age of permissiveness, the howl of protest. The dean of the Graduate School at Yale said recently, “The attire of students is incredibly sloppy. It would be fine if we could get away with a rule requiring ties at all meals. A good thing to press for in my retiring years.”

Must we wait until the Dean retires? Let us hope not. Meanwhile, I make a few observations. The first: Does not insistence on a minimal standard of dress reflect a decent respect for the opinions of mankind? The same community that insists that one pay at least a procedural respect to the opinions of ideological aberrants can hardly be expected to shrink from deferring to society on the appropriate means of clothing one’s nakedness. Even in the world of getting and spending, for whose coarseness a considerable contempt is stimulated in many colleges and campuses, coat-and-tie is a prerequisite to participation. The Beats who indulge their sloppiness as a symbol of their individualism can take the measure of their hypocrisy by reflecting on their imminent surrender — effective on the day they graduate into the world of commerce in which, almost to a man, they fully intend to spend their lives. The young graduate who informs Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Beane that to require coat and tie is undemocratic, can expect a most un-Philosophic reply. I doubt, going further, that there is a Princeton undergraduate who would presume to call on Jack Kerouac without coat and tie. If disorderly attire is a genuine symbol of personal independence, then the college generation should stick by their symbol at least a few decorous weeks after the ink is dry on their baccalaureate degrees. If it is not that, then dishevelment is what it is: a blend of affectation and laziness.

The second point for the academic community to think over is the matter of authority. Is it theirs to stipulate a minimal standard of dress? Professor Joseph T. Curtiss of Yale said recently, “Respectful or respectable dressing is a characteristic of adult society. Some people are born gentlemen, other people acquire gentility during life, still others must have it forced on them.” The tendency is to depreciate the beneficence of externally imposed norms of civilized behavior. There are many who, like myself, would, if left alone, permit our standards of personal dress to deteriorate to the level of the downright offensive. Conscientious members of society — and I include here, intending no offense, administrators of our colleges and universities — should not permit us to indulge our disintegrative proclivities. Coat-and-tie is merely a symbol. It could be courtesy; deference; reverence; humility; moderation: and are these not, all, the proper concern of a college administration? Is there a relationship between a faculty’s weakmindedness, and a student body’s disorderliness?


Prof. Jeff Hart on WFB

August 15, 2010

Dartmouth English professor emeritus Jeffrey Hart wrote this essay, “Understanding William F. Buckley,” shortly after Mr. Buckley’s death. It appeared first in The Dartmouth Review, the collegiate newspaper inspired by the late intellectual’s National Review and to which your editorial staff briefly and poorly contributed. In it, Professor Hart offers a glimpse, frustrating in its brevity, of what made Mr. Buckley so indespensible a man: his intellectualism and curiosity and determination, but equally the joy and tenacity with which he experienced life.

The essay is re-printed here slightly abbreviated; the Professor’s analysis of National Review’s political stances has been sacrificed to afford his memories of summers in Gstaad with the Buckleys more room.

I did not meet Buckley until the summer of 1962, and then almost by accident. I was teaching a Columbia summer term course in the Victorian novel. One of the students in this course came into my office for a conference. She noticed on my desk a copy of The Fabric of Society by Ernest van den Haag and Ralph Ross, a brilliant and comprehensive summary of the social sciences, economics, psychology, political philosophy, sociology. The student asked me if I would like to meet Van den Haag, and when I said yes invited me to a cocktail party at her apartment in Greenwich Village.

William F. Buckley, Jr. at work.

There I found that she affectionately called him “Ernie Pooh.” He certainly did not seem Pooh-like. He seemed very European, dark, with a sharp nose and a black comb-over, smoking a thin European cigar, wearing tight European trousers, and narrow shoes made from the skin of some reptile. Anyone less Pooh-like would be hard to imagine. At the cocktail party he had a friend with him, Anatole Broyard, a man famous in the Village and later an incisive book critic for The New York Times. Friends soon told me that Van den Haag and Broyard cut a wide swath through the female population of the Village and were the opposite of discreet about their adventures. Broyard later wrote a memoir of life in the Village with the humorous title When Kafka was the Rage.

Van den Haag and I became friends and it developed that he was a talent scout for Buckley. “Would you review books for National Review?” he asked me, and I said I would be glad to. This led to some extraordinary experiences, including work as a speechwriter for Reagan and then Nixon in 1968.

Soon I received a phone call from Buckley’s secretary and agreed to meet him at the National Review office, then at 150 E. 35th Street, and go to dinner with him. I did not know at the time that this secretary Gertrude Vogt had been a passenger on the Orizaba and had seen Hart Crane jump off the stern of the ship and disappear.

When I arrived I met Buckley in his office evidently doing some last-minute things to the magazine before it went to the printer. He was bent over a table with pages of typed copy scattered over it. The tail of his J. Press shirt hung out as he worked hurriedly. His tie knot was down to his chest. Finally, he pulled himself together and we headed out to a local Chinese restaurant. He was excellent company and I had a preliminary glimpse of what many would later experience as his genius for friendship, which transcended differences of opinion. As I would discover, he was passionate about enjoying life, sailing, skiing, playing the piano harpsichord, paining, good wine and cigars.

Some astounding characters wrote from National Review, at least one of them, Willmoore Kendall, a Yale professor and genius. He was a political philosopher in the Leo Strauss tradition, and advocate of “majority rule” democracy. That meant that we governed ourselves according to the Constitution. He was suspicious of “rights,” which could de-rail majority rule.

A couch still exists at National Review, The Willmoore Kendall Memorial Couch, on which he had been caught inflagrante with one of the secretaries.

Of the major figures at National Review, I learned most from Kendall and James Burnham: constitutional theory from Kendall, policy analysis from Burnham. I also developed a friendship with Buckley that would last until his death in March 2008. Buckley had a way of drastically changing peoples’ lives, and it was fascinating to be connected with his magazine as it went on to change its leadership twice, and with that the value of the magazine itself.

Matthew Hart, the youngest of my four children, is Buckley’s godson and now lives near Lake Tahoe in California; when he heard that Buckley had died he sent me an e-mail:

I just wanted to send you my condolences about Mr. Buckley. I know you have been friends for a really long time. He was always nice to me as a kid and still wrote to me on my birthday up to my 20s. He didn’t have to, but he did. It really shows class when someone like him takes time to engage us as kids. He could have spent the time talking with adults who were around (and probably wanted more of his time) but he didn’t. For some reason he seems like the type of person who doesn’t exist anymore. I’ll always have the memories of Switzerland and skiing with the A Team and being reminded not to pass the Leader but being led off into some sort of gulch we had to hike out of in three feet of snow. Well, what can you do? We made it out after all. That’s what happens when you leave the trail I guess. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

Matthew was in Gstaad only once. I went several times beginning in the 1970s – I had been a senior editor at National Review since 1969 and a few impressions of life at Gstaad provides a sense of the joi de vivre that was characteristic of Buckley’s life.

At Gstaad, the Buckley schedule ruled our social life, and his schedule was always the same. We all skied in the morning while Buckley worked in his chateau on some writing project. Then all the skiers met for lunch at one or another restaurant at the base of one of the mountains. After lunch, fortified by plenty of wine, we followed the leader to another mountain and skied there until late afternoon.

At the top of one of the mountains was a restaurant called The Sky Club, members only. One morning Buckley and I were skiing together, and he decided to have lunch at the Club. As we were putting our skiis on the rack outside Buckley indicated to me an elderly man in a one-piece blue ski outfit also putting his skis on the rack. Buckley whispered to me that he would tell me about him when we found a table.

Over lunch he said that he had stayed with this man, the Count von Something at his castle in Germany to do some research for a novel he was writing. The first night they sat down in front of the fireplace and had some drinks and there above the fireplace on the wall were life-sized oil portraits of Josef Goebbels and Herman Goering. Came the obvious question: Why were those portraits there? “Because they were my godfathers,” said the Count. Oh.

Buckley’s chateau, which he leased annually, was an enormous place located at the base of one of the mountains. It was in Rougemont, a few miles from Gstaad. You could finish a day by skiing right to its rear entrance.

On my first visit to the chateau I entered through the front door, which seemed the normal way for drive-up guests to get in. But I found myself in a large kitchen with a stone fireplace for cooking a large piece of meat on a spit. All it needed was a dwarf cook, preferably with a leather apron.

On the second floor of the chateau, up stone steps of course, was Buckley’s office where he worked in the morning, and also his studio. He painted in oils, when the creative urge moved him mountains, sailboats, unrecognizable portraits. Buckley had many talents including being the most influential journalists of his time, but painting was not one of his gifts.

I heard that once, before I had begun to go to Gstaad, David Niven had told Buckley that Marc Chagall was coming to Gstaad, that Chagall enjoyed Buckley’s spy novels and would like to stop to say hello. “Fine,” said Buckley. “I’d like to meet him.” “Wait a minute, Bill,” said Niven. “Chagall is a real artist. World famous. You wouldn’t take him to your studio, would you?” “Of course not,” Buckley replied. Niven and Chagall showed up at the chateau, Buckley took him immediately to his studio, and Chagall, gazing at Buckley’s paintings, said in French, “The poor paint.”

Another time, Ted Kennedy visited the Buckley’s in Rougemont, skiing and partying. On one occasion he asked, “Mind if I borrow one of the cars and drive into Gstaad?” “Hell no,” Pat Buckley said, “There are two bridges between here and Gstaad.”

I doubt that Kennedy considered that thigh-slapping funny.

Social life at the chateau resembled that at the Buckleys’ 73rd Street and Park Avenue duplex: interesting and civilized people, usually accomplished in one way or another; conservatives but not only conservatives: Kitty and Ken Galbraith, David Niven, Taki Theodoracopolis (a glamorous multi-millionaire, great skier, and good enough at tennis to compete at Wimbledon).

Other guests included: the latest actor to play James Bond; “Swifty” Lazar the agent; Arthur Schlesinger. Once I asked Arthur about Jack Kennedy’s off-the-charts womanizing to see how he would handle that question. Everyone knew that Kennedy’s behavior made Bill Clinton look like a monk in comparison. Of course, Arthur professed to know nothing about it.

David Niven was one of the pleasantest people you could meet, witty, debonair, civilized. One year when he was ill with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, we were instructed not to say anything funny, since if Niven tried to laugh he might choke. Since at the Buckley gatherings, wit was the coin of the realm, this inhibition tended to produce near silence: “Good skiing today.” “I hear Ali Khan is in town . . .” “Looks like snow tomorrow.”

But with the illnesses of Pat Buckley and then Bill, the good times in Gstaad had to end.  


Pretenders To The Throne

May 19, 2010

Rush Limbaugh is an author, in the most sluttish sense of that word (that is, its loosest and most non-discriminatory application). So are Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity. They’ve all published (and, to some extent, written) books. “Books” is another loosely and generously applied word, but it’s true all their books share some commonality: they’re double-spaced, published in large font, and don’t include any words requiring a dictionary. These guys know their audience, and it’s not the Harvard political science department. Rush himself has less than a year’s worth of Southeast Missouri State University under his belt.

William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote real books. The single-spaced kind, with no pictures. He graduated from Yale University and published his first, God & Man at Yale, shortly thereafter. It was revolutionary for its time, and he followed up with over 50 more; some political discourse, others spy novels, travel journals, or biographies. He also served briefly in the Central Intelligence Agency, as a field officer in Mexico, and hosted the talk show Firing Line. He wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column, On The Right, ran for mayor of New York, and founded a magazine, National Review. NR is still a bastion of conservative thought… not just of party line conservatism, but of conservative thought. Through it, he mentored young thinkers like Dinesh D’Souza and Richard Brookhiser.

Rush & co. are noisy, arrogant pretenders to Buckley’s throne. Buckley earned the title Lion of The Right; today’s pundits are hyenas cackling over the lion’s leavings. None enjoy his intellect or joi de vivre; Buckley was playmaker, coach, and commissioner of a game in which the rest are Monday morning quarterbacks. They abstain from play, whereas Buckley launched a movement and defined conservative thought. Limbaugh and the others define only conservative rhetoric, and trust their audience not to spot the difference.

William F. Buckley, Jr.


The Party Line

March 29, 2010

The Grand Old Party has lately been a house divided; Lindsey Graham and Olympia Snowe (R-SC and R-ME, respectively) keep a moderate tack, while conservative armchair quarterbacks like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly harangue them for imaginary disloyalty to the party.

Messrs. Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Beck, and the rest would do well to look up one other famous Republican, Abraham Lincoln, who served this country as President and wisely observed that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Where once Ronald Reagan and Bill Buckley sought to invite conservatism as a whole into a “big tent,” Rush & Co. seem more eager to divide the house at every turn. This is helpful to neither the party overall, nor national dialogue.  

The recent Congressional passage of landmark healthcare legislation seems poised to force the issue, and perhaps some reconciliation: the fighting and voting over President Obama’s health bill was vicious, to say the least, and neither side escaped unbloodied. Politically, the bill’s passage may have two effects: one, hardening even further the resolve of conservatives in opposing liberals, and the other: emboldening the Obama administration and encouraging it to tackle other reforms. Chief among those other reforms will likely be modifications to the banking and financial industries.

Here, some compromise may be had: though conservative Republicans have traditionally favored big business and seen government as an engine to promote economy (while Democrats believe economy is an engine itself for social good, and should be regulated to that end), the extent of public distaste for banks and business is so great now that politicians of either stripe may find themselves obligated to push financial regulations, despite their historic allegiances to either side.

The public cry for financial reform may prove able to forge cross-aisle coalitions, as Democrats and Republicans toe the same line for the sake of votes. Coalitions like that may be beneficial to Americans overall, in reigning in bankers and financiers, but will hopefully be at least equally beneficial to the GOP in terms of fostering an ability to compromise and move forward, at least with one another.