Civil is nice, but win­ning elec­tions is bet­ter

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - BY WES­LEY PRUDEN Wes­ley Pruden is ed­i­tor in chief emer­i­tus of The Times.

Ev­ery­body wants to go to heaven, the wise man ob­served, but no­body wants to die. It’s not a puz­zle­ment. Ev­ery­body wants kind and gen­tle in our pol­i­tics, but no­body wants to risk los­ing an elec­tion. That’s not such a puz­zle­ment, ei­ther. The pass­ing of Ge­orge Her­bert Walker Bush, a gen­uinely de­cent, kind and po­lite man, has caught the coun­try up in a frenzy of good feel­ings, and some kind, gen­tle and ex­tremely naive folk are sure that Mr. Bush’s last, great gift to Amer­ica will be a re­vival of a kind and gen­tle pol­i­tics that once made Amer­ica great. Or some­thing like that.

There’s prob­a­bly no go­ing back, but there is an in­sa­tiable yearn­ing in the land for a respite, a re­cess, a time-out in the prac­tice of smash-mouth, any­thing-goes, take-no-pris­on­ers pol­i­tics. Ev­ery­body says so. There’s even a Na­tional In­sti­tute for Civil Dis­course, not (yet) an­other gov­ern­ment agency to grow one day into a bu­reau­cracy, but a mon­i­tor of how politi­cians talk.

The in­sti­tute and the Amer­i­can


As­so­ci­a­tion em­pan­eled a gag­gle of Ph.Ds not long ago for a “wide-rang­ing” dis­cus­sion of the rea­sons for “the de­cline in ci­vil­ity and mu­tual re­spect and pub­lic dis­course.” A com­men­ta­tor was re­cruited from Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio to be the mod­er­a­tor and, pre­sum­ably as a bow to and odd con­cep­tion of ide­o­log­i­cal bal­ance, one of the pan­elists was in­vited from CNN. They talked about why 60 per­cent of Amer­i­cans, as re­vealed in one poll, feel stressed about “cur­rent so­cial di­vi­sive­ness” which in turn con­trib­utes to “the high lev­els of neg­a­tiv­ity in our so­cial dis­course.”

Neg­a­tiv­ity, said Arthur Evans of the in­sti­tute, makes it of­ten dif­fi­cult for peo­ple hold­ing dif­fer­ent opin­ions to talk to each other be­cause they give each other lit­tle room to make mis­takes. “What that does then, it leaves only peo­ple at the ex­tremes to talk about the is­sue, and so it re­in­forces the idea that the only way you can talk about this is in an ex­treme way.”

Who could ar­gue with that? The ar­gu­ment is about the def­i­ni­tion of ex­tremes. We get a pretty good idea of how the in­sti­tute de­fines ex­tremes when it imag­ines that psy­cho­log­i­cal bal­ance is struck when NPR and CNN sit down to air out their dif­fer­ences, if any. There won’t be much blood left on the floor.

The idea that the politi­cians of the past have a les­son for us would have puz­zled some of those politi­cians. John Adams and Thomas Jef­fer­son were two of the most em­i­nent of those politi­cians, and when they op­posed each other in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 1800 they left buck­ets of blood on the floor. Both men knew what they were do­ing, and how to do it. They left the mud­sling­ing to cut-outs, pre­serv­ing their “right to ef­fec­tive de­ni­a­bil­ity.”

The Jef­fer­son camp ac­cused the fleshy Adams of hav­ing a “hideous hermaphrodit­i­cal char­ac­ter, which has nei­ther the force and firm­ness of a man, nor the gen­tle­ness and sen­si­bil­ity of a woman.” Slurs were in sea­son. The Adams cam­paign called Jef­fer­son “a mean-spir­ited, low-lived fel­low, the son of a half-breed In­dian squaw, sired by a Vir­ginia mu­latto fa­ther.” Not a nice thing to say about his vice pres­i­dent. Ac­counts of the lurid cam­paign would have em­bar­rassed and of­fended Don­ald Trump. Adams was called a “fool, a hyp­ocrite, a crim­i­nal and a tyrant,” Jef­fer­son a “weak­ling, an athe­ist, a lib­er­tine and a cow­ard.”

The cam­paign got rough af­ter that. “Adams and Jef­fer­son spent much of the elec­tion sea­son at their re­spec­tive homes in Mas­sachusetts and Vir­ginia,” writes Ker­win Swing, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Ken­ne­saw State Univer­sity, and au­thor of “Mud­slingers: The 25 Dir­ti­est Po­lit­i­cal Cam­paigns of All Time.” The dif­fer­ence be­tween them was that Jef­fer­son hired a hatchet man to do his smear­ing and Adams, who thought him­self too high-minded for such things, re­lied on the tal­ent avail­able in Bos­ton to do the work pro bono.

Jef­fer­son’s hatchet man, writes Prof. Swing, was ef­fec­tive, “con­vinc­ing many Amer­i­cans that Adams des­per­ately wanted to at­tack France. Al­though the claim was com­pletely un­true, vot­ers bought it and Jef­fer­son won the elec­tion.

Win­ning the elec­tion is what pol­i­tics is all about, and men (and lately women) suc­cess­ful in it un­der­stand the rough wis­dom of Leo Durocher, the fa­mous base­ball man­ager-philoso­pher who ob­served that “nice guys fin­ish last.” The friend­ship that Adams and Jef­fer­son nur­tured in Philadel­phia in 1776 sur­vived. They be­came friends again af­ter the brawl, just like Ge­orge H.W. Bush and Bill Clin­ton two cen­turies later.

It’s not a good way to pre­serve a friend­ship, but politi­cians, and par­tic­u­larly pres­i­dents, rarely hold grudges. They usu­ally un­der­stand that “bash­ing,” as Mr. Bush called it, is not nice, but it’s in­evitable. The stakes are too high for it to be other­wise.

Ci­vil­ity in pol­i­tics is a good idea, but bash­ing works. Sad.


John Adams

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