Here’s how lacking in civility we are today: We have spent the past two weeks debating what civility is, and why the people we don’t like don’t have it.
Look up the meaning of the word “civility” and you will find that it is rooted in the notion of being part of a city. In our urban age, that should make civility fairly common. But because we know that common sense isn’t, we also know that civility isn’t exactly overflowing, even in a nation that considers itself, after the Book of Matthew (as adapted by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who both seized on the simile), as a city upon a hill.
Let’s first stipulate that politics as practiced since the United States became a nation has been largely nonviolent — but seldom confectionery or kind. There was the vicious campaign of 1800, the derision directed at Abraham Lincoln, the slur-filled struggle between James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland in 1884, the bitter battle between Al Gore and George W. Bush a decade ago.
No doubt the presence of struggle and battle in the last sentence struck you as being completely unremarkable, which helps prove my point. We’re used to martial references in our politics. The word campaign originally meant a military operation. U.S. politics ain’t beanbag (the credit for that insight goes to the great Peter Finley Dunne). It ain’t kind, either.
And yet pugilists (there I go again, as Reagan would say) on both sides prize civility, claim it for their own, deny its presence in their opponents and salute random acts of it, which in some ways only underlines how rare civility is.
For a generation, commentators, myself included, have celebrated the wonderful relationships cultivated by former Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., first with longtime minority leader Bob Michel and then with Reagan. The mythology is that O’Neill loved to share a lazy afternoon on the golf links with Michel and an early-evening pop with Reagan. The work-hard, play-hard narrative is that they fought like animals during the day and relaxed like pals after hours.
These myths didn’t arise from nothing. There were in fact golf outings and the clinking of glasses — and staff relationships that have no equal today. Last week Chris Matthews, a former O’Neill aide, celebrated the speaker-president relationship and quoted Reagan as saying, “The speaker says that here in Washington we’re all friends after 6.”
I’m not sure that means very much. Being chummy in private, where it doesn’t matter, but churlish in public, where it does, is no recipe for civility in public affairs.
In truth, the Democrats of that period ran a tyrannical House, where Republican privileges and prerogatives were severely limited. For all the time he spent on the fairways with O’Neill, Michel was always a supplicant, not a political equal — until Michel had a semblance of a working majority because so many conservative Southern Democrats, known as Boll Weevils, were voting with the Republicans on tax and budget matters.
And it is beyond contention that O’Neill and his allies mounted a ferocious offensive against Reagan in the 1982 midterm congressional elections, portraying the president as a cruel enemy of the aged and an unfeeling plutocrat ready to break faith with the American promise of Social Security.
Reagan’s forces returned the attacks in kind, focusing on O’Neill’s portly profile and his liberal spending record. Lucky for the speaker, earmarks weren’t earmarked for extinction in his time, or else there would be no billion-dollar warren of new tunnels under Boston today.
Civility more elusive
The problem with the civility serenades we are hearing in the wake of the tragic shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson is that they are blatantly political in a way that makes a mockery of civility itself.
Still, it is true that inter-party civility might be harder to achieve today than it was in the recent past.
As the Boll Weevil example suggests, as recently as a quarter-century ago there were large groups of political figures with affinity for the views of the opposing party. It was easier, for example, for Lyndon B. Johnson to win the support of Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, the Republican leader in the Senate, for civil rights legislation than it was to attract Southern Democratic votes. In fact, a larger percentage of GOP senators than Democratic senators voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Dirksen and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield had an easier time displaying civility in 1964 than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell, do today.
And for all his problems with Republican lawmakers who opposed the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt was far less than civil with Sens. Walter George, Ellison D. “Cotton Ed” Smith and Millard Tydings, Democrats he brutally sought to defeat in primaries.
A moving target
Civility can be a sometime thing. No two figures inspire more partisan controversy than former Sens. Robert J. Dole, whose sharp remarks as the Republicans’ vice presidential candidate in 1976 still rankle Democrats, and George S. McGovern, whose 1972 Democratic presidential campaign remains a target of Republican bromides today. And yet Dole and McGovern, both from agricultural states, teamed up to support food-stamp legislation and were jointly honored in 2008 with the World Food Prize for their efforts to battle hunger among the world’s poor. That is civility with a civilizing touch.
Civility is a noble concept, but it sometimes is confused with mushiness. Barry Goldwater, who was salty but civil, once derided fellow Republican Dwight Eisenhower, who was the epitome of civility, as a dime-store New Dealer. In the political life that followed his military career, Eisenhower accepted many of the tenets of the two Democratic presidents who preceded him, which made it all the easier for his rivals to think him civil.
Indeed, in the past several years, liberals have celebrated conservatives who come to their side, if only for an issue or two, while conservatives have saluted liberals who wander into their political wheelhouse from time to time. But there is a difference between civility and complicity. We need not insist on the latter in our search for the former.