America Has ‘Very Good Haters’ But What We Need Is Civility

Washington could use more gentlemanly behavior.

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By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Too often, our public discourse becomes public "discoarse." Then the song of democracy gets discordant. Sometimes we as a society forget we are all in this thing together.

Talk radio--read: Rush Limbaugh--started a vicious trend 20 years ago that has spread to other forms of media, like cable television and the Internet.

As I write for the Thomas Jefferson Street blog, I ask the reader to please hold his fire--and it is almost always "his." In this space, the few liberals among us get quite a whacking from readers. Mean-spirited comments are all the rage, it seems sometimes. Just this once I'd like to hear from a few in a more gentlemanly manner.

To the rescue comes James Leach, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Leach is about halfway through a major civility initiative. He has plans to travel to all 50 states to speak about this civic virtue. Notice how close civility and civic are in Latin. The city, whether it's ancient Rome or modern Washington, works best when there is an agreed-upon way to disagree.

So far, halfway through the civility road tour, Leach says the results are spectacular when he goes out to the people to talk face-to-face about the American public square today.

"There's a hunger out there," he told me in the Politics and Prose bookstore in Northwest Washington. "The public is really concerned with how the political system operates." He says that concern runs as deep in New York as it does in Mississippi.

Leach, a former Republican congressman appointed by President Obama to the endowment, singled out mutual respect as too often missing across the partisan divide.

"The result that matters most is whether the two parties can work together for the common good," Leach said in a recent speech at New York University in his heartland style--he is an Iowa native.

The common good, what a refreshing notion. So is my Midwestern Grandmother Hicks' saying: "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all."

Of course, this problem is not just the parties, but individuals inside and outside the government who have made politics a personal contact sport where winning is the only thing. Lately, perhaps the best outrage is Liz Cheney, who never got elected to anything in her life and is suddenly shamelessly acting as a self-appointed McCarthyite. For some reason, she started waging a private war on several government lawyers whose opinion differed from hers--I wonder why. And I also wonder why she gets covered by the press, but that's for another day.

By the way, missives like hers cannot go unremarked.

Yes, we've still got "very good haters" out there--the phrase comes from Dr. Samuel Johnson, author of the first English dictionary more than two centuries ago. And you can see them on any given day, chewing up the air waves and sowing seeds of discontent.

Leach knows well whereof he speaks. He was one of the moderate Republicans still walking around the Capitol when the Newt Gingrich-recruited Republican Class of 1994 came to town and burned the House institutions and customs down. The brash new majority even changed the time-honored names of committees and displayed their contempt for the federal government by shutting it down. That didn't go over too well, remember? As much as you might hate the government, it's hard to do without it.

That class declared their fealty in person to Rush Limbaugh, whom they credited with their historic victory. A rookie reporter then, I remember that scene like yesterday, but it was a long time ago.

The Class of 1994 got up to a lot of mischief and antics for which they will be remembered, but now we have to ask: 15 years later, is what we have what we collectively "mean" by America? And I mean, we are getting good at being mean in public spaces.

Or shall we follow an Iowan's lead, and strive for common sense for the common good?

Give Leach and his civility crusade a chance.

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