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Fearing the 'kiss of death'

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Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Families that regularly break bread together understand that ancient ritual. And that might explain the recurring lament from some quarters that our nation's problems could be solved if only President Obama hosted a few more socials with Republican leaders.

Last week, when asked about these claims again, Obama talked about playing golf with House Speaker John Boehner and posing with congressional families at the annual picnic, all to no avail on the political front.

The president said that while he and the first lady enjoy those generally friendly times with Republican members of Congress, it doesn't prevent his opponents from going onto the floor of the House and “blasting me for being a big-spending socialist.”

Even invitations to state dinners, holiday parties and movie nights at the White House, surefire icebreakers in the past, have few Republican takers. No longer is it unthinkable to pass on a chance to loaf with the president simply because you belong to different political parties.

It seems that no Republican official can forget the Charlie Crist bacio di morte , or kiss of death. In 2009, the then-Republican governor of Florida embraced President Obama at a public event and photos of that were used to deny Crist the Senate nomination the following year and drum him out of party prominence.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie rolled the dice and hugged Obama during Hurricane Sandy. He immediately drew the ire of fellow Republicans who are hellbent on keeping humanity out of national politics. It could cost him the 2016 presidential nomination.

Still, bread-breaking had a good run on the national scene. Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill shared lunch during their bitterest battles and worked things out for the sake of the country. John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, fellow World War II veterans, remained friends in the Senate until their final showdown for the White House.

In “Eisenhower in War and Peace,” author Jean Edward Smith describes the accommodation reached by three of the wiliest political denizens of Washington. Ike, Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Leader Lyndon Johnson “did not trust one another completely and they did not see eye to eye on every issue but they understood one another and had no difficulty working together.”

And while Ike continued to meet with Republican leadership, “his weekly sessions with Rayburn and Johnson, usually in the evening over drinks, were far more productive.” Together, they brought us the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Interstate Highway System, changing the face of the nation.

It was an age in which personal relationships still counted for something in national politics, when the common good prevailed over party politics, before fear of the kiss of death. The answer is still out there — if any of today's national leaders grow weary of the gridlock.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (

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