BELLEVILLE — The art of compromise is not a lost art in Congress, said former U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon, although it seems to be missing there these days.
The Belleville native was back in his hometown Thursday morning to speak before the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce about a new book he has written titled "The Gentleman From Illinois," which chronicles his time in metro-east and Illinois politics and days in the U.S. Senate.
The Democrat and self-described fiscal conservative was asked if members of Congress can get past the partisanship that seems to have stifled progress in Washington.
"The answer is yes," Dixon said. "It will come back. These things go in phases, you know, and we're going through kind of a funny phase right now."
The 86-year-old said the same seems to be happening in the Illinois General Assembly.
"It's a terrible time," he said.
He said that when he served in the state house and in Congress, lawmakers on opposite sides of the aisle still disagreed but were able to compromise and got along outside of the political forum.
"You might think that I'm exaggerating, but this is really true," he said. "We argued on the floor day and night, and we drank together and became friends."
"In the House, all through the Reagan and Bush years, they remained Democratic. Tip O'Neill was the speaker and Danny Rostenkowski, whom I'm sorry went to jail, but he was my dear friend and we were best friends in the Illinois House."
Dixon was elected to the Illinois House in 1950, where he served for 12 years. He was then elected to the Illinois Senate, where he served for eight years. After that, he was elected to the state treasurer's office and then six years later was elected to a term as the Illinois Secretary of State. In 1980, he was elected to the United States Senate, where he served two terms before he was defeated in 1992.
Dixon recalled how during his time in the U.S. Senate both the Democratic-dominated Congress could still work under GOP-lead administrations.
"Tip O'Neill would fight all day and oppose everything that the president wanted, and then he would go to the White House that night and share a few glasses with the President of the United States, and that was a rather common thing that occurred in those days," Dixon said. "I had many friends on the Republican side. I played a round of golf with Danny Quayle, who was a much better player than I am, and I like him a lot. The press didn't care for him, but I always thought he was a good guy. But it was a happy time in those days with good relationships, and a lot of things were solved by quality efforts of both sides working together. And we need that desperately."
Dixon got his start in his hometown. On Thursday, he recalled his earliest memories of metro-east politics, when P.K. Johnson tapped him in 1948 to be police magistrate.
"I said, 'Mr. Johnson, you can't pick me for police magistrate. I'm still going to law school at Washington University. I'm not a lawyer,'" Dixon said. "He said, 'You don't have to be a lawyer to be a police magistrate.' So I was on the ticket for police magistrate."
He also recalls being asked to meet with St. Clair County State's Attorney Richard T. Carter at The Jug, which until recently had operated at the corner of East A and North High streets in downtown Belleville.
"He said, 'Alan, I want you to be one of my assistant state's attorneys.' And I said, 'I just started practicing law. I don't know really know much about things, yet.' And he said, 'You'll be in charge of all of the people that don't pay their wives their alimony and the support for their children.' So that's the job that I got."
There was the time he was invited to go to the levee garage in East St. Louis on a Saturday, when he saw local Democratic political boss Alvin G. Fields operate his political machine through patronage. Fields served on the St. Clair County Board, East Side Levee and Sanitary District Board and as a city commissioner before serving a 20-year stint as East St. Louis mayor.
"He was sitting behind a desk that was obviously full of cash," Dixon said. "And on the right hand side of him was a black policeman with a shotgun, and on the right hand side of him was a white policeman with an equally big shotgun. And then sitting behind the two of those people was a guard and he had a pistol in his waist. Then, they started calling people, and it was by their numbers. In those days, they numbered whites first and then blacks in East St. Louis. The first precinct came in and a white man discussed something with the mayor and finally an amount was resolved, and he left, and the next fella came in."
His book, recollects interesting behind-the-scenes stories like this during Dixon's time in local politics. He said he wrote the book in his spare time over the past four years after family members urged him to put his memories in writing.
"My whole history is in there, and everything that happened is in there," he said. "But some of the interesting things that are in there are things you've never heard about and don't know much about. They're really, really quite interesting."
Contact reporter Will Buss at email@example.com or 239-2526.