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Some positive thoughts amid bitter election

A couple things have turned up that may help to clear your mind and revive your spirit after the nastiness of this political campaign.

Goodness knows, we need relief after the barrage of negative ads and insistent phone calls that candidates and political parties unleashed on us. I know that the political consultants are convinced that "going negative" is the only way to move the vote and win an election.

But at some point, you wish that the grown-ups in this country - those who don't see elections as a profit-making business - would remind these talented character assassins of the damage they are doing to the system of representative government that has served this nation so well.

Let me now climb down from my soapbox and tell you about the letter I recently received from former Sen. George McGovern, telling me that he is forming a bipartisan "Council of Elders," wise men and women who will occasionally consult informally with each other and be available, individually, to counsel people now making public policy.

The 1972 Democratic nominee, still actively writing and speaking at age 84, points out that America has never developed a habit or mechanism for keeping its most experienced figures engaged even in advisory roles. His council is an informal stab in that direction.

Among others, McGovern has enlisted such liberals as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., former Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall, journalists Lewis Lapham and Gloria Steinem, Carrie Lee Nelson, the outspoken and humorous widow of Sen. Gaylord Nelson, and former Sens. Tom Eagleton, McGovern's first choice for vice president, and John Culver.

Balancing them are several notable Republicans: former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and former Majority Whip Alan Simpson, and Rep. Henry Hyde, who is about to leave the House after championing conservative causes such as the anti-abortion movement.

McGovern's enterprise reminds me of something that Lamar Alexander, soon to be Tennessee's senior senator, and perhaps move into the Republican leadership, told me he had learned many years ago from his apprenticeship under Bryce Harlow, the diminutive but powerful White House legislative and political adviser in the 1960s and 1970s.

Harlow taught Alexander and others that it is a wise policy to have at least one old geezer on the White House staff, someone not entirely dependent on the current president for his power or position, someone who can speak with utter frankness without fear of the consequences.

That's excellent advice, and my one regret is that my old colleague, Mary McGrory, who certainly would have qualified for McGovern's council of elders, did not live long enough to serve. But some of Mary's finest work is finally between hard covers in "The Best of Mary McGrory," published by Andrews McMeel and selected and edited, with great love, by Phil Gailey, a dear friend of Mary's from the old Washington Star and now at the St. Petersburg Times.

In one column Gailey selected from The Washington Post, where Mary moved after the demise of the Star, she wrote about the era that was then just beginning but is now nearing its end.

"Those who yearn for healing and unity in Washington," McGrory wrote, "had better look to the National Zoo. A pair of panda bears have arrived from China, and they'll bring people together because they provide amusement and delight, something that is not anticipated from a Cheney-Bush administration."

Earlier, writing about the funeral of Richard Nixon, she observed: "He was smart, but he got something big wrong: He thought politics was war and that everything is justified. And what we can learn from this week is how much Americans want to love their presidents - and they will in life as well as in death, if they are given half a chance."

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I mourn the death of a great reporter and a good friend and colleague, Helen Dewar, who gave Washington Post readers definitive coverage of Virginia politics and the Senate over the past decades. She dominated those beats, without ever raising her voice or flaunting her knowledge, and she managed to do everything - including fight the breast cancer that killed her - with immense dignity and good humor.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at davidbroder@washpost.com. Have any thoughts about this column? Share them with us at letters@gwinnettdailypost.com. Letters should be no more than 200 words and are subject to approval by the publisher. Letters may be edited for style and space requirements. Please sign your name and provide an address and a daytime telephone number. Address letters for publication to: Letters to the Editor, Gwinnett Daily Post, P.O. Box 603, Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603. The fax number is 770-339-8081.