Civility on Tour

Posted Dec. 10, 2009, at 6:28 p.m.

Former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach has one of the most difficult, if necessary, jobs in the country. Mr. Leach, now the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, recently launched a civility tour aimed at restoring rational dialogue to public policy debates.

At a time when heckling opponents and shouting “You lie” at the president from the floor of the House of Representatives have replaced give-and-take discussion about pressing issues such as invigorating the economy and reducing health care spending, Mr. Leach’s effort is sorely needed.

Last month, the longtime former Republican Iowa representative launched his “civility tour.” Over the next year and a half, Mr. Leach intends to visit every state to preach the need for a calmer discourse. He was in Maine last week.

“Balanced debate has been superseded by issue distortion and notions like the common good have given way to partisan and interest group calculations,” he said last month.

“Far better it would be for all legislators to consider themselves responsible for governing and for both sides to recognize that the other has something to say and contribute. In a society as complicated as ours has become, it is irrational to think that Republicans cannot find some Democratic initiatives helpful to society and that Democrats cannot from time to time vote with Republicans.”

Mr. Leach said he began his tour in New England because of the region’s tradition of town hall-type gatherings where ideas can be shared and debated. It is no accident that the region is also home to many of the remaining moderate members of Congress, although their ranks are thinning.

Maine’s Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, are known nationally for their willingness to work with Democrats and independents to craft and pass legislation. Rather than being viewed as an asset by the Republican Party, GOP leaders have threatened to try to push Sens. Snowe and Collins aside for politicians who toe the party line.

This would ensure even less was accomplished in Washington.

Republicans have good ideas to bring to the health care debate, but when interest groups are exhorting people to “spoil Harry Reid’s Christmas,” their ideas are much less likely to be heard.

“Bridging cultural divides and developing a sense for a common humanity are moral and social imperatives,” Mr. Leach said before heading out on his tour. “Together, we in the humanities are obligated to help advance an ethic of thoughtfulness rather than conformity of thought, decency of expression rather than coarseness in public manners.

“Civilization requires civility.”

His advice should be heeded in Washington and on Main Streets across the country.

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