Restore Civility in Debate, Politics and Government

By John E. Carey
September 25, 2006

There seems a lack of civility, good manners, decorum and protocol in Washington these days.

One side frequently calls the other side names instead of making organized, logical arguments. Or sometimes, even while making good arguments, the “tone” of the discussion is so harsh that the message gets damaged or lost.

We entered the world of the “blogosphere” on July 4, 2006. In this internet land of people discussing world events, the language often is particularly harsh, polarizing and nasty.

Former President Bill Clinton entered (or re-entered depending upon your point of view) the fray on Sunday, September 24, 2006, during an interview with Chris Wallace on the TV show “Fox News Sunday.”

Associated Press writer Karen Matthews, reporting on the exchange, called it “combative.” The Washington Times’ Eric Pfeiffer used words like “angry,” “blame,” “agitated,” “contentious,” and “heated exchange.”

Former President Bill Clinton, an experienced and calculating politician, one has to think, threw this tantrum intentionally. Either that or he just lost his cool during a TV interview and then failed to ask for a re-taping to set the record straight. Which do you think?

According to Pfeiffer, “Mr. Clinton became so agitated that he could be seen wagging his right index finger at moderator Chris Wallace.”

“You’ve got that little smirk on your face, and you think you’re so clever,” Mr. Clinton said. “You did your nice little conservative hit job on me.”

Mr. Wallace said after the interview, “As he leaned forward — wagging his finger in my face and then poking the notes I was holding — I felt as if a mountain was coming down in front of me.”

Mr. Wallace said more on Fox on Monday afternoon September 25: “He just blew,” said an incredulous Wallace about the former president. “What set him off,” continued Wallace, “was one of my questions. But it was clear President Clinton had been boiling about ABC and their recent show (“The Path to 9/11″) and I just hit a raw nerve.”

Wallace said he did not think President Clinton’s reaction was scripted or planned and that “he was still fuming as he left the studio.”

Wallace also said his producer tried to cut off the president to save embarassment, saying off camera, “End this interview right away,” but that the former president continued speaking.

This is conduct for a former president? To make a point? I can hear George Washington, Abe Lincoln and a bunch of the other former “Bubbas” rolling over in their graves.

Those are not words usually associated with a president sitting for a media interview. Or speaking anywhere on anything. I can’t think of those words ever applied to an ex-president during a media exchange. This may just qualify Mr. Clinton for another description: “not presidential.”

Mr. Clinton accused host Chris Wallace of a “conservative hit job.” Not presidential at all.

Did president Clinton miss a memo about letting others mix it up in public with the opposition and their media? Even my Vietnamese-born wife observed: “Good thing Clinton didn’t interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox. It might have ended up with Bill and Bill on the floor slugging each other.”

Not presidential.

And as the leader of the Democratic party, the former president used his leadership by example to tell his followers that a nearly enraged response to criticism is all right. Completely acceptable. Even appropriate.

We have a problem with this.

It is bad enough we have to hear the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “talking smack” as they say, at the United Nations; now we have to hear it from a former President of the United States?

Makes one wonder what side is Bill Clinton on? And why does he see a need to lower himself to the level of Chavez and Ahmadinejad? Are we missing something?

An exchange between President Bush and the Today show’s Matt Lauer on the anniversary of 9/11 caused a flurry of discussion on some web sites. Lauer seemed to have an aggressive, even badgering tone with the president as the two stood in the Oval Office discussing 9/11 and other issues of the day. Lauer repeatedly gestured in an aggressive way, almost sticking his finger in the president’s chest.On Sunday, September 10, 2006, on Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace asked Democratic National Committee Chairman and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean if he would now apologize to Karl Rove.

It seems, despite Dean’s accusations that Rove was the leaker in the Valery Plame escapade, that Richard Armitage was the unfortunate and inadvertent leaker.Gov. Dean answered, “Absolutely not. I still think he should be fired.”

Armitage apologized in public. Dean could not.

Does it matter? Sure it does.Thoughtful, courteous national discourse has managed to get us and our democracy through a revolution against the most powerful nation on the Earth, a War Between the States, two World Wars and other tragedies and trying times.

If we can get along, maybe we can discuss the problems and get the best answers. Maybe a more civil and etiquette-driven discussion of the issues can help us get through the War on Terror.

Instead, we have become a nation led by name-callers, insult-slingers and generally rude, angry and impolite representatives.And sometimes, the media, maybe unintentionally, magnify the animosity.

This is what many conservatives saw during Matt Lauer’s questioning of President Bush on September 11, 2006.

What does this uncivil discourse teach our children? And does it do us any good?

Our American history is full of great men who teach us the importance of good conduct for the common good. Some say George Washington actually authored “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour [sic] in Company and Conversation.”

Though not the author, Washington embraced good manners so famously that the “Rules” could easily have been his own creation.The good manners of John Adams also echo to us through history.

With Thomas Paine, Adams watched a young American officer conduct himself less than diplomatically and courteously before the King of France.

Adams wrote to his wife, describing the “Man of Choleric Temper.” Adams said the man “like so many Gentlemen from his State, is abrupt and undiplomatic. Last evening, at a Royal Reception, he confronted His Most Christian Majesty Louis XVI with Words both ardent and impatient, whilst Mr. Paine wrung his Hands at the other man’s lack of Tact. Never did I think that I would see our impetuous Paine so pain’d by another’s want of Courtesy and Civility. To our amazement, however, the King took [the man’s] Enthusiasm in good Part.”

When told one of his generals, John C. Fremont, had been nominated by a group of 400 anti-Lincoln loyalists to run for president, Lincoln opened a Bible and read aloud from I Samuel:22, “And everyone that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men.”

Modern statesmen pulled the country together, not by tearing others apart or barking at the media, but more often by thoughtful discourse and conduct.

“Both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt operated beautifully on the reporters who surrounded them,” wrote David Keirsey and Ray Choiniere in “Presidential Temperament.”

“Both used the press as if it were their own publicity machine.”

This was largely achieved in a civil, diplomatic style.

A modern day solon of wisdom and truth might be former Indiana Congressman and Democrat Lee Hamilton. Hamilton volunteered some stern remarks about the importance of truth. “Facts are not Republican and they’re not Democrat,” he said. “They’re not ideological. Facts are facts.”

I cannot ever recall seeing John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, or George W. Bush look petulant, angry or rude. Or terribly distort the facts.

Other great national leaders also reflect respect, even admiration, for the importance of good protocol and decorum.Winston Churchill described a 1941 university ceremony this way: “The blitz was running hard at that time, and the night before, the raid … had been heavy. Several hundreds had been killed and wounded. Many houses were destroyed. Buildings next to the university were still burning, and many of the university authorities who conducted the ceremony had pulled on their robes over uniforms begrimed and drenched; but all was presented with faultless ritual and appropriate decorum, and I sustained a very strong and invigorating impression of the superiority of man over the forces that can destroy him.”

Let’s hope our leaders become enlightened enough to avoid the forces that can destroy them. For our sake and the sake of our children.

I regret the times that bad conduct, anger and a disregard for etiquette got the best of me.

I hope our present day political leaders see the light too.

To get though the war against terror and to achieve victory, a united, clear-thinking leadership just might be important.

Angry rhetoric and arson with clever words serves no good purpose. It just diminishes our dialogue and our democracy.

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A version of the article was published in The Washington Times.

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This is from our very first “About Peace and Freedom” posting:

John retired from the United States Navy after duty on several ships, and numerous tours of duty in the Pentagon including in President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI).

Mr. Carey has been named by the U.S. Navy as one of the 20 founding members or “Pathfinders” of the Navy Ballistic Missile Defense program.

In March of 2007 the people of the tribal areas, Pakistan, announced that they were awarding the “Award from the Poor” to John on behalf of his work for them both in country and in the newspaper upon his return to the United States.

Mr. Carey is active in Human Rights activities and has written extensively about human rights issues with his wife, Honglien. He is a regular contributor to many newspapers and internet discussion groups and considers The Washington Times as his “home” newspaper.

He also manages the “Peace and Freedom” Information Group.

Mister Carey is the former President of International Defense Consultants, Inc. (IDCI) of Arlington, Virginia which supported the war against terrorism and others projects for the Pentagon and Department of State.

Peace and Freedom is supported by journalists and experts world-wide such as Wantanee in Thailand, Hieu in Vietnam, Win Le in China and Muhammad in Khar (Bajaur, Tribal Areas, Pakistan).

On September 6, 2006, TIME Magazine initiated a link to our Peace and Freedom web sites; an honor that made us most proud of our web contributions of our Flagship.

Welcome to Peace and Freedom: Where We Express our Love and Gratitude for God, America and All Mankind. We hope you enjoy a learning experience here….

 

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