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Hanaway and Holden: Once acrimonious, now amiable adversaries

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 10, 2009 - In 2003 and 2004, two of the state's top officials at the time -- then-Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, and Speaker of the House Catherine Hanaway, a Republican -- often engaged in headline-grabbing and acrimonious battles over a variety of issues.

"He and I had many heated disputes,'' Hanaway acknowledges now.

But before a packed house at Webster University during a Holden Public Policy "Pizza and Politics'' forum, the two shared the stage for a joint discussion that couldn't have been more amiable.

He complimented her intellect and ground-breaking achievement as the state's first -- and so far, only -- woman Speaker of the House. She praised him as honest and "a man of integrity."

Their agreements Wednesday seemed numerous, such as the need for stronger government oversight of conditions in nursing homes and a mutual concern about the rise of incivility.

Their joint appearance was the first time that Hanaway and Holden had been together in public since both departed from politics after losing statewide contests in 2004. Holden lost his re-election bid in that summer's Democratic primary, while Hanaway was defeated that fall in her quest to be secretary of state.

Since then, both have gone their separate ways.

Hanaway recently completed a stint as U.S. Attorney for Missouri's Eastern District and now is a lawyer in private practice. She is among several former U.S. attorneys who have joined the national law firm -- Ashcroft Group LLC -- headed by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, a fellow Republican and former governor and U.S. senator.

Holden heads the public-policy speakers forum at Webster University, where he also teaches. He is vice-chairman of the Midwest US-China Association, and has established the One Bright Future Foundation, a not-for-profit public policy organization. He also provides business consulting services through The Holden Group, LLC.

Both played down their past differences. "We really did get along personally,'' said Hanaway.

The lack of acrimony came through their hour-long question-answer session.

Hanaway, for example, offered a candid appraisal of the raucous congressional town-hall forums held this summer in Missouri and elsewhere.

While observing that in some cases "it's very unfortunate that they've gotten out of control,'' Hanaway said that the town halls likely achieved a laudatory civic purpose. By attracting large crowds of average Americans, she said, the events provided "a very positive contribution to public discourse."

Holden said he welcomed public forums, but he feared that the repeated verbal attacks about President Barack Obama by conservative critics were resulting in a broad-ranged, destructive lack of respect for political leaders.

Both expressed like-minded views when asked about a recent appeals court decision in California that, according to the Los Angeles Times, said Ashcroft "could be sued personally for for allegedly violating the constitutional rights of a Muslim man, Abdullah Kidd, who was detained after the Sept. 11 attacks."

As a former prosecutor, Hanaway said she feared that, if the ruling stands, it will have "a very chilling effect on prosecutors'' who then had to be concerned about being personally sued over their prosecutorial decisions.

Holden, while emphasizing that he's not a lawyer, said that "I have a problem judging events way after they occurred."

He recalled the panic and fear that gripped the nation after the 9/11 attacks. As governor, Holden recounted his own concern about potential attacks targeting the state's military installations or its nuclear plants. As the nation's attorney general, Ashcroft no doubt had heightened concerns about how best to protect the country for a possible repeat attack, Holden said.

Among other issues, Holden and Hanaway offered polite point-counterpoint accounts of their differences over the Democratic-led proposals in Washington to change the nation's health care system, and their assessments as to why there was so much controversy over Obama's speech Tuesday to the nation's school children.

Holden said he couldn't understand the controversy over the school address, while Hanaway said it was understandably fed by conservatives' wariness of teachers' unions.

Afterwards, as the two mingled with the audience and engaged in small talk, Holden said he hoped their joint appearance and their "real differences'' on issues made a broader point.

"Hopefully, one of the messages here is that it's OK to have differences," Holden said. "But you don't have to shout."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.