A Plea for Civility: 'Cheapening political discourse'

William F. Buckley Jr.’s death prompted a wave of tributes, even from some of his ideological foes, for the tenor of the debates he orchestrated on his longtime television program, “Firing Line.” Over the years, Buckley played host to hundreds of political figures, writers, thinkers, economists and other public figures who presented arguments for liberal or centrist causes. Few emerged from the encounter without a bruise. But most would agree that they were treated with respect and civility.

The contrast with the tone of today’s political debate is clear. Buckley’s “Firing Line” could become passionate indeed, but fans of the show would be hard-pressed to recall a time when either the host or a guest was reduced to shouting or hurling personal invective in the place of reasoned argument. Today’s political talk shows, however, have replaced argument with anger (real or feigned), paragraphs with sound bites and reasonable disagreement with personal attacks.


Of course, the cheapening of political discourse is not simply the work of ratings-obsessed producers and show-off hosts. Politicians, too, have either followed or led the vulgarization of civic discourse. Just a few days after Buckley’s death, an aide to Senator Barack Obama resigned after a British newspaper quoted her calling Senator Hillary Clinton a “monster.” The aide’s comment was just another low point in the 2008 campaign. Several months ago, two aides to former Senator John Edwards quit his presidential campaign after they posted hate-filled remarks about Catholics and Catholicism on a Web site.

There is an argument to be made that none of this is new. “Monster” would have been one of the nicer things uttered in the presidential campaign of 1800, when partisans of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams engaged in what may still rank as the nastiest race in American political history. And Alfred E. Smith probably suffered the most disgraceful attacks ever heaped upon a single candidate during the 1928 campaign, when he became the first Catholic to win a major-party presidential nomination.

This year promises a repeat of 1928 in the sense that the fall campaign will feature either the first woman or the first African-American as a major-party nominee for president, just as 1928 featured the first Catholic. The country, we would like to think, has come a long way from 1928, when crosses were burned during Smith’s campaign stops in Oklahoma. But we will soon see if we have come far enough to shield Clinton or Obama from the kind of attacks Smith endured.

Weeks before the Democratic campaign developed into a thrilling historical milestone, a group of civic-minded Catholics signed and released a bipartisan appeal for civility in the 2008 presidential campaign. Thomas Patrick Melady, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican and a lifelong Republican, and Timothy J. May, a senior partner at Patton Boggs and a lifelong Democrat, wrote the letter after hearing Cardinal Theodore McCarrick deliver a plea for civility during a Mass last year in the nation’s capital.

“We wanted the letter to be bipartisan, and we wanted it to come from the laity,” said Ambassador Melady. “We thought it was important to point out that people can be very clear about their differences and yet be civil to each other. John Paul II was always civil, but he also had very clear views. You can be clear and civil—that’s the message we wanted to get out.”

Nearly 80 prominent lay Catholics—including Alfred E. Smith IV—signed the letter May and Melady drew up. The letter is specific to Catholic issues, outlining principles that the signatories believe will set an example of civility for the rest of the country. The letter asserts, for example, that Catholics should “not enlist the church’s moral endorsement for our political preferences.” Pointedly, the letter insists that Catholics “should not exhort the church to condemn our political opponents by publicly denying them holy Communion based on public dissent from church teachings.” Four years ago, Democratic nominee John Kerry faced the threat of such a censure because of his views on abortion, as have other Catholic politicians.

The letter sensibly noted that U.S. bishops should not permit the church “to be used, or appear to be used, as a partisan, political tool.” This is a special source of contention among many laypeople who deplore ham-handed attempts to preach partisan politics from the pulpit. Just as sensibly, the letter notes that Catholics ought to “keep in mind the common humanity we share with those with whom we disagree.” If Catholics in high places in the media followed this rather simple precept, debate in Washington might take on an entirely different tone.

The Melady-May letter, it must be noted, has not received unanimous approval from politically active Catholics. Another group, Catholic Laymen in the Public Square, issued a strongly worded but civil dissent, asserting that the Melady-May letter could serve, perhaps unwittingly, as a means to “silence the pro-life and pro-family movements.” About 100 lay Catholics, including the former Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, signed the document.

The concerns of the Catholic Laymen group are understandable: One person’s call for civility can be another person’s excuse to silence an irritating prophet. They raise an important point when they note that few people would be worried about civility when confronted by a politician who supported segregation or aggressive war.

Still, as Bill Buckley proved, it surely is possible to argue forcefully for your beliefs and still respect the humanity and integrity of an opponent. It would be a shame, indeed, if that sensibility died with him.

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Nicholas Clifford
10 years 10 months ago
A very good article. Perhaps it's understandable why political activists in both parties should encourage polarization, but fortunately there are signs that the public is turning away from the easy generalities and stereotypical thinking of such people. In any case, there is no reason why those who are Christians should surrender to the temptation to condemn those who disagree with them, and should remember that reasoned persuasion is likely to be far more effective than mere Diktat, no matter how tempting the latter. I have just finished reading Charles Taylor's splendid Secular Age, and find that not the least of the virtues of this particular Catholic philosopher is the enormously charitable respect that he shows for those with whom he most disagrees. His is a lesson from which we all (self included) might profit.
10 years 10 months ago
Nil nisi bonum I'm sure, but am I the only reader of this magazine old enough to remember the remarkable televised exchange between William Buckley and Gore Vidal at the 1968 Democratic Convention in which Vidal called Buckley, if memory serves a "crypto-Nazi" and Buckley responded by labelling Vidal a "queer" whose "goddamn face" Buckley threatened to punch? Yes, Buckley was a paradigm of civility. His thoroughly simplistic but nevertheless "civil" treatment of the economist Lorie Tarshis in "God and Man at Yale" (1951)represented the culmination of a right-wing campaign against Tarshis for the unimaginable sin of thinking Keynesian thoughts and writing them down in a textbook. Universities then dropped Tarshis, the hot potato, for Paul Samuelson--a good illustration of being careful for what you wish for. Why do I find it so hard to see Buckley as a champion of respectful intellectual discourse?


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