Monday, January 17, 2011

The Tone of Political Discourse

I am somewhat taken aback by the recent glut of "talking heads" on the cable news channels, decrying the "harsh tone of today's political discourse". While civility is truly in short supply in the arena of partisan politics, these pundits are acting as though this is something new in American politics. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A cursory review of American history will reveal the fact that political posturing, bickering, name calling, personal attacks, and even violence dot the partisan landscape of our nation's 234 year journey.

All of us remember the boorish behavior of South Carolina's Republican Congressman, Joe Wilson, who interrupted President Obama's 2009 State of the Union Address, by spontaneously yelling, "You lie!" That is shameful behavior, and whether one likes Obama or not, it was tremendously disrespectful to the office of the Presidency, and the decorum of the occasion. But political vitriol knows no party lines. The President, himself, has referred to the opposition party as "our enemies".

Partisan politics is a tough business. While civility and grace are admirable qualities, in any area of human interaction, unfortunately they seem to quickly fade into the background in the practice of the hardball nature of politics. We could use a lot more civility in this arena, but don't be fooled by those who claim that this is something new, spawned by the rise of talk radio or Internet blogging.

For those among us who whine about the need to return to the genteel nature of politics in the past, I would just ask one question. Did they sleep through history class?
Think things are harsh in the political realm today?

Perhaps they would like to return to the peaceful days of yore when political differences were settled in "more civilized" ways. For instance, the episode that took place in the Old Senate Chamber of the Capitol Building on May 22, 1856. The Senate was not in session when South Carolina Representative Preston S. Brooks entered the chamber to avenge the insults that Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner had levelled at Brooks' cousin, Senator Andrew P. Butler. Sumner's "Crime Against Kansas" speech of May 19-20 was sharply critical, on a personal level, of Butler and several other senators who had supported the "popular sovereignty" provisions of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. Sumner was addressing copies of the speech at his desk when Brooks began his attack, striking the northern senator repeatedly with a walking cane, which splintered with the force of the blows.

Although two House members intervened to end the assault, Sumner, who had ripped his desk loose from the bolts holding it to the floor in his effort to escape, was rendered unconscious. He regained consciousness shortly after the attack, but it would be three years before he felt able to resume his senatorial duties.

Look at the historical records regarding rhetoric surrounding the presidential campaigns of men like Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson. The personal attacks against these men and their families were absolutely brutal.

Go farther back to our revered founding fathers. We have this foggy notion that they all locked arms and sang Kumbaya throughout the early days of the Republic. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Our heroes like Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Hamilton often literally hated one other. Washington was despised by his political enemies, who sought every possible way to bring him down. The genteel John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the fiery red headed co author author of the Declaration of Independence, had many political and personal differences. It is ironic that Adams and Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826 (the 50th birthday of our nation).

Their differences paled in comparison with those of Arron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Burr was the third Vice President of the United States (serving under Thomas Jefferson) and Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton, along with John Jay, and James Madison, co wrote the Federalist Papers, which are still looked to today by the courts in determining "original intent" questions in interpreting the Constitution.

These two important figures in the early days of the Republic had numerous political differences. The "conversation" (as they say today) spilled over into insults and personal attacks.

During the course of the 1804 election Hamilton regularly and flagrantly vilified Burr in speeches, some of which were attended by Burr's agents who reported back on their contents. Burr took particular notice of an inflammatory claim that Hamilton had expressed certain "despicable" opinions of him, and that he "could detail . . . a still more despicable opinion." History does not reveal the nature of this more "despicable opinion" but it struck a nerve. What is revealed is that by this time Hamilton considered Burr to be the most dangerous man in the new nation. Burr demanded satisfaction or retraction and challenged Hamilton to a duel.

Burr received satisfaction at Wehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804, when he mortally wounded Hamilton on the first shot. Still alive, but paralyzed from the waist down, Hamilton was brought to the home of a friend where he slowly died from internal bleeding. He breathed his last at two o'clock in the afternoon on July 12.

Please do not misunderstand the nature of this post. Two (or two hundred) wrongs don't make a right. However, to those who are crying "the sky is falling" over the tone of the political debate in America, I would say "come on man!" Get real! All of us would surely appreciate a more civil tone in political debate, but face it. This stuff has been going on for more than two centuries of our nation's history.

It's not likely that whining about it will change a single thing. At least that is one Kentuckian's opinion, "For What It's Worth".

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