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Morning After Mid-Terms, Line From George Washington Matters

November 7, 2018

The nation made it through another election cycle.  This one was much more brash and mean-spirited than other mid-terms, in that the words and tone from some gave partisan dialogue a sharper edge, and a much darker tone.  That fact left a mark on some voters, who clearly cast their ballot with the heated rhetoric helping to make their decisions more firm.

What bleary-eyed Americans awaken to this morning is a political landscape that is highly divided and scarred by words.  We are left wondering where the need, at times, for tough rhetoric ends and incivility begins.  There are some points to think about as we, as a nation, must move forward.

On Monday, a Facebook friend, lamented that the divisiveness of the candidates, and the scurrilous nature of the television ads, were more than the electorate should be forced to endure.  A bevy of likes and agreeing comments followed.  We can all agree what passed for political dialogue over the past months was not the best way to educate voters prior to casting a ballot.  What we were offered was simply dreadful.

This year the use of outlandish fear, such as with the false claim about smallpox, was interjected for partisan purposes.  Those types of actions will linger long after the news stories about the mid-terms are over.  Historically speaking, most election cycles end with candidates and campaigns lifting up the tone and style of their mission with inspiring words.  After months of bare knuckle political combat there is a reason to leave the fight with an overt attempt to lift the sails.  Everyone wishes to look decent and hopeful when making their last appeal for the responsibility of leadership.  But this year even Fox News rejected the final ad from Donald Trump’s political team which portrayed immigrants as a violent threat.

I sat in my office Monday afternoon thinking back on the elections which I have watched play out.  It was not long before President Ronald Reagan came to mind.  It took a few minutes of searching online before finding what I knew existed.  Reagan was not only a great communicator but came from an era when showing respect to the ones with the power at the ballot box was simply the proper thing to do.  One could disagree with his policy views, but there was no doubting his honor.

In 1982, also a mid-term, Reagan’s tone on the campaign trail was a story in The New York Times on October 30th.   The story was headlined Reagan Ends Campaign On High Note. “Mr. Reagan smiled on a Republican rally and declared, ”This morning, Americans awoke to see another patch of blue.”” That was vintage Reagan.

That fall there was some good economic data, even with the growing numbers of unemployed. Throughout the trips to campaign Reagan allowed for the usual verbal jousting about Democrats in congress.  But the theme of the article, and the memory I have from that time, are summed up in these lines.

The President’s final two-day trip, designed to bolster Republican candidates in five Senate races, was a blend of patriotic rhetoric and optimistic talk on the economy. His speeches were replete with excerpts from letters from people writing rhapsodically about ”how great” the nation is, ”the best country in the world.”that Reagan was using in his stops to rally voters.  The President frequently campaigned by inviting Mountain state crowds to reflect on their own wholesomeness.

Reagan did not use racial or ethic fear, lash out at any demographic, or needlessly stir the passions of certain voters.  He, instead, fulfilled his role as leader of the party while also knowing his responsibility as president.  He knew from his years as a speaker that words matter.  So they need to be selected with care.

It was not only the insulting words that made so many upset with Tuesday’s elections.  There were also the television ads.

When it comes to the attack ads there is unanimous agreement they are awful in every sense of the word.  The third-party (dark money) that is allowed to infect our elections is another cause for concern about the tone of our politics.  I understand campaign finance reform is never a sexy topic but what we see play out each cycle is proof as to why it matters. When a candidate or party need to place their names as authorizing an ad it proves to be a needed step towards a modicum of civility.  But having bogus groups with names such ‘Citizens For Better Government’, which then lacerates and demonizes one side or the other, lends not one reason to vote for someone. That entire process if DESIGNED to lower the turnout for the opposition.  Not to only vote against someone, but to anger voters to the point they do not even show up on Election Day.

We are able to make better laws that regulate more firmly these ads if we only commit as citizens, rather than partisans, to the needed mission.  By not acting we allow this to continue, and it will happen every election year.

This summer I read the last published book of Robert Caro concerning Lyndon Johnson. (Final volume of this phenomenal series, hopefully, comes out soon.)  In the books there is ample evidence where tough words, bombast, and even a lack of civility from various quarters allows for the greater good to be attained. We have seen, throughout our history, when lack of civility is a symptom about a deeper need that requires political leaders to address the matter with policy.  But there is a huge difference between the actions and words of those, for example, fighting for civil rights versus someone in the White House who posts a sexually suggestive tweet about a female senator, or a member of congress encouraging the harassment of members of the opposition party when they are seen in public.

There is no doubt the tone of our politics is most concerning.  And there are plenty of reasons to be dismayed.  But I do wish to conclude with a hopeful view, which comes from our history.

I was truly moved last year when visiting Mount Vernon, the home to George Washington.  Every American should visit at least once.  It was there I learned that in a schoolbook he had copied, as a teenager, a list of “101 Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”  Many were mundane and trite.  But the first one was not, and it made an impression.  Sitting Monday thinking about the tone of our politics that line flashed in my mind.  I looked it up for exactness for this post.

“Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”

Some might view that line as old-fashioned when considering ways to behave.  But given where we are in the nation might it be possible that a line from history can be used as a way for our going forward?

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