How it’s done

Never has politics in America been so polarized— so blue and red, black and white, left and right. An end to the November election cycle has not helped. Politicians on both sides of the aisle—at the state and federal levels—seem almost incapable of conceding anything so as to negotiate real solutions to our problems. Most of them seem to have forgotten that age-old, six-word bit of counsel for those who attempt to govern: Politics is the art of compromise.

This is why it’s been so refreshing to see “the art” successfully practiced these last few months in developments surrounding first lady Maria Shriver’s controversial plan to alter the mission and direction of the California State History Museum.

Here’s what happened.

The museum—located inside the secretary of state’s headquarters on 10th and O streets—has been struggling financially since it opened in June 1998. Built originally with $10.6 million in state bonds, the place—with its marvelous though underappreciated displays—relies on private donations and ticket sales to get by. This is where Shriver comes in. Following the recall election of her husband to the state’s top job, she raised $350,000 and opened the California’s Remarkable Women exhibit at the museum. When it drew crowds with its non-stuffy presentations (of Barbie dolls, astronaut Sally Ride’s space suit, ice skater Peggy Fleming’s Olympic gold medal, etc.), Shriver proposed in September to help bail out the museum by transforming the entire 25,000-square-foot facility into a women’s museum.

Well, the proposal was met with complaint. The state’s newspapers filled with outcry from historians, teachers and students. “Why give up on the original mission of the museum?” they all wanted to know. Although the museum’s board members generally backed Shriver’s plan, three of them resigned so as to make clear their unhappiness about the proposal. Make no mistake: The resignations of Tom Stollard, Karen Sinsheimer and Charles G. Palm lent credibility to those who argued against Shriver’s call to redirect the museum.

That’s when something unusual happened. Instead of charging forward anyway, which she surely could have done, Shriver actually seemed to hear merit in the criticism. She listened, she learned, and she changed her thinking. Next, she and some museum board members came up with a good old-fashioned compromise proposal that would maintain the place’s role as an overall history museum while including a separate, permanent section devoted to women. Last week, trustees voted unanimously to support the new plan and its promise from Shriver to raise $10 million in private monies to fund it. As things stand, the whole package will go to the Legislature early next year.

And there you have it. Somebody with power made a proposal, got bashed, actually listened to her critics, scrapped her idea and came up with a better one that seemed to work out beneficially for everybody.

It’s called the art of compromise, people. Thanks to Shriver, the practice of this long-forgotten political art seems not yet moribund. The only question is: When will our others in power take her lead?