A call for civility in politics: Where have you been?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:54 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 22, 2009

It is hard to fault the media condemnation of South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson’s “you lie” shouted at President Obama during his health care address before a joint session of Congress. One has to applaud this call for civility, joined by the Missourian’s own George Kennedy in his well articulated prose. Political and personal leanings and loyalties notwithstanding, this was a seriously inexcusable breach of protocol and common courtesy.

That the Congressman apologized and that it was apparently accepted in good faith does little to mitigate the rude behavior; he will bear the consequences of this act for the rest of his days. And, for those among you who would excuse this discourtesy as “appropriate for the truth of the matter stated therein,” allow me to remind the generation gap. We were taught manners and boorish behavior of that nature earned a quick trip to the woodshed.

This sudden clamor for more polite discourse is a welcome departure from what too often appears to have become the norm; however, one must wonder in just what cave did these Johnny-come-latelies reside during the past eight years? I realize this may come as surprise to many who claim to support bipartisanship, but name calling, discourtesy, and disregard for common decency did not originate among those who oppose the current administration’s programs and policies.

As a quick refresher, Senator Harry Reid, D-Nev., called President Bush a liar on the Senate floor in 2004 over a difference in opinion as to safety of nuclear waste to be stored in Yucca Mountain. Earlier Reid had called the president a “loser” in an address to high school students. He apologized for the latter but declined the former. And Congressman Fortney “Pete” Stark of California was not censured for naming Bush a liar on the House floor on Oct. 18, 2007, and further accusing the administration of sending kids to Iraq to "get their heads blown off for the President’s amusement.

Other examples of childish and rude deportment are not hard to find. During the 2004 and 2005 State of the Union Address, the Democrat’s opposition to the Patriot Act and Social Security reform took a heretofore uncharacteristic tone of vociferous booing and hissing. Finally, we have the Hurricane Katrina demagoguery of New York’s Charlie Rangel’s race card comparison of Bush to Birmingham police commissioner Theophilus “Bull” Conner for perceived insensitivity to poor and displaced New Orleans blacks.

These examples are neither intended nor do they excuse the conduct of Mr. Wilson; you may or may not perceive a double standard in the coverage – let your conscience be your guide. In this instance, an apology was offered and accepted and the House of Representatives has reacted (or overreacted) with an official rebuke. This horse is dead and further beating will not improve the atmosphere.

As a historical perspective, I enjoy a uniquely good fortune, that of serving on Capitol Hill as USMC Liaison Officer to Congress from 1972-1977. I was in the House Gallery for 5 State of the Union Addresses as well as for numerous joint sessions of Congress for foreign heads of state and other luminaries. I attended hearings in both houses of Congress and was present for House and Senate debate and voting for both authorization and appropriations legislation.

That period was one of highly partisan activity also, encompassing the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the resignation of President Nixon, the Church-Pike gutting of the CIA, military base closures and opposition to Department of Defense weapons projects. A highly volatile period, featuring huge Democratic Party majorities in both houses of Congress; nevertheless, the business of government was carried out by ladies and gentlemen behaving largely as grown-ups. Not once did I observe the untoward behavior now commonplace.

This situation prevailed, albeit sometimes as an uneasy truce, with a mannerly tone through the Clinton presidency. Circa 2001, the wheels came off the capacity to bridge ideological, political and party differences by means of polite discourse, creating a widening chasm across which increasingly vile charges and counter charges were hurled. While I do have faith in the generation now in our universities, I am not confident of an early return to civility.

The most appalling and despicable aftermath of Mr. Wilson’s outburst have been the moon bat rants of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and MSNBC political analyst Larry O’Donnell alleging racism by the South Carolina Congressman and by former President Jimmy Carter who sees racial motives in differing with the President. This notion is picking up traction among the disingenuous who see a plus in playing the race card as an alternative to honest debate.

To the president’s credit, he has dismissed these charges. To attribute disagreement with his programs and policies as motivated by the color of his skin is the lowest form of political abasement, it is beneath contempt. Whatever became of “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” the standard of the past eight years?

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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Brian Jarvis September 23, 2009 | 3:21 p.m.

Well-articulated piece, but Bill Clinton did not get a free pass for his behavior. If Maureen Dowd is your media standard, note the Monica Lewinsky scandal first gave a platform to such well-mannered media luminaries as Ann Coulter and Matt Drudge. This all began far sooner than 2001.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 23, 2009 | 4:48 p.m.

("...this was a seriously inexcusable breach of protocol and common courtesy.")
Or a spontaneous, uncontrollable outburst due to cracking under pressure and frustration.
(Still doesn't "look" right but quite understandable.)
Maybe, even forgivable by some.
Hard to say if Joe had planned this out or even realized what he did at the time.
Perhaps it was nothing more then a Tourette's-like response.
(Did anyone check his BP, the meds he may be taking or his blood alcohol content?)
I wouldn't be out to ruin the man's career.
We've all had one or two "blonde moments."

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