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A lesson in civics, civility

Whatever the final impact of the Iraq Study Group report being issued today, for the 10 commission members this was an exhilarating experience, a demonstration of genuine bipartisanship that they hope will serve as an example to the broader political world.

"It was a very wonderful experience," former Republican Sen. Al Simpson of Wyoming told me last weekend. "We very quickly stopped considering ourselves as Republicans and Democrats, but as Americans trying to deal with a most urgent problem."

The nine men and one woman serving on the commission - five from each party - represented a wide range of political backgrounds and philosophical views.

But as commission member Vernon Jordan, the Democratic lawyer, noted, they were also "professionals" - veterans of public service. Jordan has served on presidential commissions of one sort or another since 1965, and said, "This process has been a lesson in civility."

Leon Panetta, a former Democratic congressman and Clinton White House chief of staff, said the high average age of the 10 commission members contributed to its success. "This is a different generation of policymakers," said Panetta, who at 68 was one of the youngest members. "These are people who have very different views but are comfortable trying to understand each other and coming together to solve a terrible issue facing the country."

The analogy suggested by Simpson and Panetta, both veterans of Capitol Hill, and endorsed by Jordan, is that the commission functioned like a successful House-Senate conference committee. Members fought to include (or exclude) points that were especially important to them, "but in the end," as Jordan noted, "you have to have the votes to pass it."

"We went over the recommendations word by word until everyone was satisfied," Simpson said. "No one was trying to sneak anything in and no one was laying traps. It was a very powerful experience."

Despite all the goodwill, several of the members recounted that toward the end of their deliberations, one commissioner - not someone who had served in Congress, they noted - said that he would not sign the report if one part was not removed.

James A. Baker III, the former Republican secretary of state, glanced at his co-chairman, former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, and calmly said to the dissenter, "Okay, don't."

A little later, others recalled, the dissenting member asked to return to the disputed passage and, in short order, agreed to slightly modified language.

"No one wanted to see us embarrassed by being unable to come to consensus," Simpson said.

Panetta observed that while most of the commission members had had some dealings with each other in their previous positions, they really bonded during their inspection trip to Baghdad earlier this year. "Fifteen hours on the plane together and three days in a tough place - that was a human experience where we shared a lot and really got to know each other," he said.

When I asked the commission members whether they thought their experience of coming to agreement could serve as an example to others, the answers were emphatic.

"Hopefully," Jordan said, "the House and Senate and both political parties will be instructed by our process. In the rollout, we're going to try to provide that example. I'll be going around with Ed Meese," the former Republican attorney general, "and there will be other bipartisan pairs, led by Baker and Hamilton."

When I put the question to Panetta, he said, "Our forefathers intended that a process like this work for people elected to office - the president and members of Congress in both the House and Senate. They believed they would come from different places but ultimately find consensus - that was the Miracle of Philadelphia (the compromise that produced the Constitution).

"What's unusual now is their contracting out to people like us a job that elected officials are supposed to do - finding consensus on difficult issues. I hope this will be a lesson to them; otherwise, we're in for continued trench warfare."

Panetta concluded: "This is an opportunity to look at the realities we're confronting in Iraq. For too long, both sides have been trapped by their sound bites. I hope they realize that if they're going to govern this country, they have to work together."

David Broder's e-mail address is

2006, Washington Post Writers Group