Political civility difficult to define

January 24, 2011


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.

Prized virtue

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.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


cato_the_elder 7 years, 5 months ago

This is by far the best column that's been written on this subject in recent weeks. It truthfully recounts a number of events and relationships that have been distorted by revisionists trying to spin history in order to create American political nirvanas that never existed.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 5 months ago

Your post has a distinctly self-referential aspect to it.

cato_the_elder 7 years, 5 months ago

Really, Bozo? I'd have thought that you'd have said "self-reverential."

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 5 months ago

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cowboy 7 years, 5 months ago

I think any breathing being is capable of understanding when they are being tolerant / mature and when they are being snarky or over the top. This is not complex.

beatrice 7 years, 5 months ago

Yes, we can disagree strongly on topics, yet remain civil to one another.

meggers 7 years, 5 months ago

Then I presume you support labeling those who disagree with the current administration as 'unpatriotic' and 'terrorist sympathizers'.

BigAl 7 years, 5 months ago

VERY good point. And Tom always forgets '92-00.

jafs 7 years, 4 months ago

That's true.

However, he may have lied about much more important things.

beatrice 7 years, 5 months ago

Why Tom, do you believe two wrongs make a right? I mean, why aren't you going back to '92 then? Of course, before that we could go to '88, or even '80. Then again, you can imagine the awful things said about Van Buren in 1837-'41.

If you hate what happened during the most recent Bush administration, why do you advocate for behavior that is just the same? Why would you want to become the thing you hate?

jafs 7 years, 4 months ago

That's a very good question.

I doubt you'll get an answer.

sr80 7 years, 5 months ago

well since the reid and pelosi "i'm going to take my ball and go home" is gone i think civility will return.hopefully???

sr80 7 years, 5 months ago

God wants nothing to do with them,he has a 20 foot pole for that.stay away from me!!

sr80 7 years, 4 months ago

aaa duhhhh aaaaa duhhhhh aaaaa duhhhhh i'm sorry i confused you.you sorry butt liberal!!! ah ha ha ha

kansanbygrace 7 years, 5 months ago

to both BornAgain and TomS, I heard the Arizona Sheriff blame the conservative intolerance rhetoric, and heard the immediate reactions to it. Since then, it has been the poor "conservatives" who've brought it up hundreds of times.
Professional victims, you sound like. There is absolutely no question that an uncivil inflammatory environment has effect on people's behavior.
It was the unfunctional right who have continued to scream and whine, and there is very little mention in the rest of the conversation. Waaah. Silly post.

gudpoynt 7 years, 5 months ago


Any suspicion or accusation by the left that inflammatory rhetoric from the right may have been a contributing factor in Loughner's actions, has been met ten fold by vehement denials from the right.

I think what it boils down to, is that many of those screaming heads on the right know that they're purposefully using inflammatory rhetoric to rile up their base. They know that their constituency responds well to tough talk.

I don't blame Sarah Palin for tipping Loughner over the edge any more than I blame the Bee Gees for driving Thelonious Monk crazy. Regardless, the respectable thing for politicians and media leaders to do in the wake of the Tuscon tragedy was to take pause, and just stop and consider what type of environment they are perpetuating with the words they spew into the public forum. Many respectable politicians and media leaders did just that. Obama is one of them. The leader of Fox News is another example.

The despicable thing for politicians and media leaders to do in the wake of the Tuscon tragedy is to keep screaming, louder than ever, "NOT OUR FAULT!!!".

jafs 7 years, 5 months ago

Sorry to see you join the ranks of the name-callers.

And, if you think the right doesn't and hasn't engaged in the same kind of nonsense, you haven't been paying attention very closely.

gudpoynt 7 years, 5 months ago

Or, if you'd stop listening to Fox for a minute and read a reputable news source, you'd see that the rules to be on the ballot are clear, and Rahm does not meet them.

You'd see that an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court is likely.

And then you might find yourself living in reality instead of some secluded corner of your paranoid mind.

You know what's really funny though Tom? Emmanuel would still probably win as a write in, given his lead in the polls right now.

Ha ha ha ha ha.

So... Pelosi is no longer speaker. Olbermann is no longer on tv (for a while). Who are you going to incessantly complain about, I wonder? Does this mean all of your negative energy will be concentrated on Reid and the "Annointed One" now?

I see you stopped calling him that out of respect for Christians.

You know... Jesus Christ was a humble soul who did not seek respect for Himself, but rather that we all could show respect and love for one another. I'd be willing to bet that Jesus wouldn't mind the "Annointed One" reference, if in return, you started showing respect for others. Try it and see. You'll feel better. I guarantee it.

gudpoynt 7 years, 5 months ago

I know what I read. Obviously if they're appealing to the state S.C., they think they might have some sort of case.

If they are successful in their appeal, I can't wait to hear your theory on how they duped the supreme court judges with their smoke and mirrors.

If they are unsuccessful, you will probably gloat a little bit, change your avatar to Rahm, and then move on to whine about the next plot to take over America by the annointed one's regime. Never thinking through, just always tearing down.

Nothing validates your conspiracy theories except your own paranoia Tom. Regime indeed. You fall into an equal, but opposite camp as the 9/11 truthers. The funny thing is, you don't seem to mind at all. Or you don't see yourself as such.

Do you ever call in to Savage Nation by chance? Your posts seem to often be in that vein of hysteria. They would probably be as funny as the calls that Savage takes, if only they weren't so repetitive and predictable.

I suggest you try a little creativity. Any room for reptilians in your theories? Shape shifters?

Like Bob Ross said: "It's your world. Go crazy."

whats_going_on 7 years, 5 months ago

I find it ironic (and humorous, since they are making it none-too obvious) that the people trying to defend themselves and blame others for {everything} here are the ones most guilty of what the thread is talking about.

beatrice 7 years, 5 months ago

No matter what, some people will still strive to be offensive and inflammatory while commenting on the these here interwebs. I certainly can't stop them, nor would I try. Only person I can control is myself. I wish to no longer take part in inflammatory word-games of insults and put downs against others who do not share my opinions. It is just that simple.

That is my pledge to myself. So others can (and will) throw around insults if they wish. It is my intention to no longer return in kind.


Fossick 7 years, 4 months ago

How about we all just pull up our big girl panties and stop whining about our political opponents calling us names?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 4 months ago

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Fossick 7 years, 4 months ago

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Fossick 7 years, 4 months ago

I didn't whine about your response, I swear, Bozo...

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 4 months ago

I believe you. Apparently some folks don't have a sense of humor.

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