What's in a drink? Everything, perhaps. On Wednesday, President Obama invited an even number of Democrats and Republicans to the White House for Happy Hour. The invitation said 7:30. Perhaps a platter of hors d'oeuvres was also hastily assembled to offset the potential giddiness of bipartisan cameraderie that alcohol consumption might fuel.
Now, when or I or you go out after work with colleagues, what happens? We discover that our co-workers are perhaps not as irritating, recalcitrant, and obnoxious as we thought. After a glass or two, we may even begin caring about their spouses and children. And we vow, in our cups, to give them the benefit of the doubt the next time friction arises during a meeting over the umpteenth rewrite of the organization's mission statement
When POTUS convenes Happy Hour, the repercussions are potentially enormous. The gesture alone reminds everyone that they are people first, opponents second. It's awfully difficult to resist the congenial subtext that evolves when you're standing in the White House holding a libation and chatting with the President of the United States. It puts you at the center of the universe""and that enlarges one's sense of obligation and statesmanship, even if only subliminally. It's hard to be quite so petty when you're getting great strokes.
This isn't about melting differences between Democrats and Republicans. It's about building bridges, finding common ground, smoothing down the rough edges, tamping down the harsh rhetoric, and maybe, just maybe, creating a path for genuine and productive compromise.
President Obama knows that small gestures can have lasting effects. He knows that hosting Happy Hour isn't about what's poured into your glass, it's about walking the walk and talking the talk--showing that you aren't going to demonize ideological opponents, you aren't going to label people as enemies.
In politics, as in life, small gestures count. They may not mean so much in and of themselves, but as symbols of the possible, as signposts of civilized behavior, they generate waves of meaning that extend well beyond the moment.
You can cling to your bitter cynicism about the left, the right, and everything in between. But if you do, you're likely to miss out on the grace that small gestures like a bipartisan Happy Hour confer on all those who participate--a grace that extends, especially, to the individual who sponsors the gesture.