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It's lonely in the middle

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Barth Falkenberg/The Christian Science Monitor/File

(Read caption) The Monitor’s Godfrey ‘Budge’ Sperling Jr. (c.) at a Monitor Breakfast with Ronald Reagan, 1985

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It’s lonely at the center. All the passion and righteousness is out on the fringes.

The left is sure that rapacious capitalists are gorging on tax breaks. The right is convinced that misguided social engineers want to pick your pockets to fund poets and panhandlers. But what they most dislike is the loony center, the place where Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives confer politely, give a little and take a little, and even (cover your ears, children) compromise.

Spending time in the center will cost you. If you run a TV show, it will cost you ratings. If you run for office, it may cost you an election.

The recent debt-ceiling debate in Washington shows clearly how constrained even the most senior political leaders now feel. Has it ever been this bad?

I recently phoned Godfrey Sperling, who served for decades as the Monitor’s Washington bureau chief, and asked him that question. Are you kidding, he answered. Come back to the mid-1960s with me.

Mr. Sperling (everyone calls him “Budge”) arrived in the capital in 1965, just as the Vietnam War was shifting into high gear. The next few years split the country deeply. Besides the war and the draft, there were assassinations, race riots, and massive student protests.

Budge loved a good scoop, but he didn’t see the point of badgering and cajoling sources – which led him to initiate a forum that eventually became known as the Monitor Breakfast. The idea, he says, was to have a calm but substantive conversation. “I had long since found out that you could get good information out of people if you didn’t beat them over the head,” he says. “Public servants are more forthcoming in a civil setting.”

Some wags lampooned that approach. They liked hardball politics and journalism. But Budge and his breakfast colleagues consistently got the scoops they were looking for.

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