Several years ago Jim Mullen had a good idea. Actually it turned out to be a great idea, considering the state of American politics today.
As the president of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., a 200-year-old institution dedicated to tutoring young men and women not only in the liberal arts but also in the principles of good citizenship, Jim thought about how best to accomplish that goal. Like a lot of Americans, he was increasingly concerned about the lack of civility in public life — the nastiness and disrespect that seemed to permeate nearly every aspect of every level of our national discourse, almost to the point of threatening the foundations of our democracy.
So Jim decided to use his highly respected school as a model for political decency. He established a national Prize for Civility in Public Life. It would reward those public figures who throughout their careers have promoted the idea that one can disagree without slandering or libeling one’s opponent, and that it is possible to run a campaign or comment on one without personal rancor or violent language or hatefulness.
It’s hard to think of a more welcome notion at a time when we have watched the races for the presidential nomination of both parties generate more vitriol and unseemliness than at any time in memory. Among the Republicans, debate at times could not have gotten lower, and the presumptive winner has resorted to a level of thuggish behavior unprecedented even in today’s uber-partisanship.
As we look forward to the next five months of political warfare, we can hope (if cynicism hasn’t utterly overcome us) that the two opponents — Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Donald Trump for the Republicans —might take a lead from the two longtime public servants who received the Allegheny College award for civility this year. In a ceremony here recently, Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. John McCain, two who often have found themselves on different sides of the issues and competed with one another strenuously at the top of their respective parties during their many decades in office, spent an hour endorsing the respect and friendship they had for each other throughout it all.
Biden called McCain, a Navy pilot who spent years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, a genuine American hero, with whom he was overawed. He told how embarrassed he was as a young senator from Delaware on a congressional trip when, McCain, just back from Hanoi prison and a liaison on Capitol Hill, waited on him. McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, praised Biden’s many kindnesses and said his behavior toward his opponents was always exemplary.
Perhaps what was most refreshing about the exchanges was their genuine quality. These weren’t two politicians blowing smoke at one another. They like each another, but more importantly, they respect each other, no matter the differences.
The scene was a reminder of a time when congressional lawmakers across the aisle would rail at each other all afternoon and then go off to dinner or a party together and never think anything about it. It was a time when those of opposing parties shared rides, took trips together, even shared living quarters. They rarely if ever went after the other party’s leader at election time. No one would have called the president of the United States a liar during a State of the Union address, as one Republican lawmaker did to Barack Obama.
All that civility suddenly disappeared, leaving us now to face the ultimate example of just the opposite, when it seems all right for a presidential candidate to make racist statements about a judge in a private matter in which he is involved and then try to crayfish out of it.
I recall a Washington affair a number of years ago when one of the speakers, former Ambassador Robert Strauss, once a key official of the Democratic Party, pulled from his pocket a letter from President Gerald R. Ford, written just after he had lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter. The letter, while acknowledging Strauss’ fierce efforts in behalf of his party’s candidate, nevertheless thanked him for his civility and appropriateness throughout the election.
It was what Jim Mullen had in mind. We can only hope that spirit will one day return to Washington.
Dan Thomasson is a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.