DG MARTIN COLUMN: David Price’s valedictory

Published 1:46 pm Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Last Friday, while his former congressional colleagues in Washington were struggling to elect a House speaker, David Price was talking to the East Chapel Hill Rotary Club, delivering his first speech as a former congressman.

D.G. Martin

Price represented North Carolina’s Fourth District for 44 years, serving since 1987, with only a two-year break due to losing an election in 1994. Before his first election to Congress, Price studied theology at Yale University, served as a political science professor at Duke University and chaired the state Democratic Party.

He authored “The Congressional Experience: An Institution Transformed.” He has all the credentials to write about Congress and who serves there, how they get things accomplished, what they have to do to get elected and then reelected, how they work with colleagues, constituents, outside groups and their fellow representatives to get things done.

He writes about how the legendary speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Sam Rayburn distinguished the “show horses” from the “work horses” who served in Congress. According to Price, Rayburn expressed his clear preference for the latter.

Price’s experience and work ethic caught the attention of Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., who wrote about him on Dec. 28, comparing him to the prophets of old. “We think of prophets as thundering against injustice and calling us all to account. Those mighty voices are indispensable. But there is another kind of prophet who speaks to us with quiet wisdom.”

Dionne writes that Price “would bridle at the thought of anyone turning him into a prophet. His perspective on politics is infused with the humility of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address and Augustine’s commentaries on the imperfections of human nature. But that is precisely why he has long been the second kind of prophet for me.”

In his Rotary Club talk, Price defended the institution of Congress and its processes for resolving individual differences of opinion and approach. Unfortunately, he said, many members have run against Congress, attacking it as the enemy.

Dionne writes, “He is a loss to the institution and our politics precisely because he thinks institutionally. He believes that Congress matters and that individual members have obligations not only to themselves, their consciences and their constituents, but also to making the first branch of government function effectively.”

Dionne calls Price “an institutional patriot” and quotes him as follows:
“A member of our institution or any governing institution needs to strike a balance between their own personal convictions, personal goals, personal political axes to grind … and what it’s going to take for the institution to function.

“Of course, you’re going to criticize institutions. Of course, you’re going sometimes to set yourself apart and take a lonely, conscientious stand. But you also need to understand that an institution of 435 members, each marching to their own drum, is going to be totally dysfunctional.”

In his talk to the Rotary Club Price explained how members could fight for their individual goals without being an absolutist about every issue.

He told Dionne, “A member of our institution or any governing institution needs to strike a balance between their own personal convictions, personal goals, personal political axes to grind … and what it’s going to take for the institution to function.”

Price asserts that it is possible to be a “full throated advocate” for what you believe and, as he told Dionne, “understand that not every battle can be won on the first try and that politics is a matter of striking a balance between … compromising and finding common ground where you can, and fighting where you must.”

As we watched some of the mean spiritedness of the new members of Congress recently, we could be forgiven for wishing that David Price was still there to share his wisdom and example.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”