May 21, 2018
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Civil and colorful discourse

By Kent Ward

In making a pitch at the Cumberland Club in Portland for a more civil tone in public debate, Sen. Susan Collins cited the emergence of around-the-clock news and networks that cater to people at the far edges of the political spectrum as a factor in hardening rhetoric and making compromise difficult.

The Associated Press reported that Collins spoke of a “destruction of collegiality” that has progressed since last year’s elections. For too many politicians, the goal of achieving solutions has been replaced by drawing sharp distinctions and scoring political points, she said.

“The personal attacks in campaigns have detrimental effects that last long after Election Day. And the seemingly constant campaign cycle, aided and abetted by cable and radio shows whose ratings may depend on reaching small but highly partisan members of the electorate, coarsens the debate,” Collins said.

She cited two congressional examples of “decidedly uncivil acts, designed not to reveal the truth, but simply to cause offense.” One involved a South Carolina Republican congressman who interrupted a speech by President Barack Obama to a joint session of Congress, shouting that the president had lied. The other was a Florida Democratic congressman’s assertion in a floor speech that the Republicans’ health care plan for the sick and elderly could be summed up as “die quickly.”

When I read the news story about the Collins speech at Portland, it was a case of deja vu all over again, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, as I recalled former Sen. Bill Cohen having barked up the same tree some years ago.

In a cardboard file box marked “Free-Speech Stuff” retrieved from my basement, I found notes from November 1995 concerning Cohen’s observation that outrageous political behavior and commentary were making it difficult to forge the compromises that guide a democracy.

Like Collins, Cohen suggested that radical sentiments and actions of outlandish talk-show hosts had gained acceptance in the media and were eroding public discourse. Some of those attitudes, he said, appeared to be filtering into congressional offices where members “often reflect public sentiment as much as they lead it.”

And like the Collins remarks, Cohen’s came after two congressmen had engaged in a decidedly uncivil public act — a Democrat from West Virginia and a Republican from California participating in a shoving match over a debate on health care. Sixteen years later, the volatile health care issue continues to bring out the worst in our public debate. As the Bible suggests, there is no new thing under the sun.

Neither Collins nor Cohen has advocated that the cable and radio talk shows and the poison-pen editorialists who provoke robust political dialogue be gagged, although others in high places have on occasion implied as much — a frightening prospect for devotees of First Amendment free-speech rights.

Ratcheting back the incivility in our public discourse a few clicks in the name of harmony would be one thing. Putting a governmental gag order on colorful, free-wheeling political commentary would be quite another. Imagine the loss to the republic had great wordsmiths such as Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken and many others been officially muzzled.

When President Warren Harding died in office in 1923, Vice President “Silent Cal” Coolidge — who, it was said, could be silent in five languages — assumed the presidency. The acerbic Mencken, a Baltimore Sun columnist,  covered the 1924 Republican convention that nominated Coolidge for president in the subsequent election.

He warned his readers that the Cleveland convention would be a dull affair: “Some dreadful mountebank in a long-tailed coat will open [the proceedings] with a windy speech; then another mountebank will repeat the same rubbish in other words; then a half-dozen windjammers will hymn good Cal as a combination of Pericles, Frederick the Great, Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and John the Baptist; then there will be an hour or two of idiotic whooping, and then the boys will go home.”

A man who could be a Coolidge fanatic “could also be a fanatic for double-entry bookkeeping,” Mencken wrote. “A whoop for Coolidge would be almost as startling as a whoop for parallel longitude…”

Were Mencken around today to crank out such flashy prose, I suppose the mountebanks, windjammers, idiotic whoopers and double-entry bookkeeping fanatics could find his commentary provocatively uncivil. But I doubt that many others might.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone.

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