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John Hughes

Sticks and stones: the case for civility in American political discourse

Instead of dogmatism and hysterical clamor, we need more of the 'Shields and Brooks' kind of civility in our public discourse in America.

By John Hughes / March 6, 2012

Rick Santorum makes a point as Mitt Romney listens during a Republican presidential debate Feb. 22 in Mesa, Ariz. Columnist John Hughes argues that for a 'more perfect union,' America needs more civil discourse.

Jae C. Hong/AP

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A Friday night ritual for me is catching “Shields and Brooks” on the PBS NewsHour. They offer intelligent analysis and opinion, and though they may disagree with each other on issues, they do so with good-natured civility.

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Instead of dogmatism and hysterical clamor, we need more of this kind of discourse in America.

I was delighted when Mark Shields and David Brooks were recognized recently by Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, which bestowed on them its “Prize for Civility in Public Life.”

I was impressed by the words of the college’s president, James Mullen, who hopes that the award and the college’s focus on civility “might empower young people across the nation; that we might help them – help all of us – find the faith and courage to engage in the public arena with civility and respect.”

On air, Mr. Shields said he was grateful for this attempt to “lower the toxicity level in American public life and dialogue.” With another dash of decorum, Shields reminded viewers that he and Mr. Brooks were the beneficiaries of standards laid down by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, the early architects of the PBS news hour.

Both newscasters were inquiring journalistic interrogators on and off the air, but as Shields declared, they “demanded and insisted upon a standard of civility in dialogue which permeates this whole show and has been the gold standard.”

Would that such a standard had been evident in the slashing debates and attack TV ads that have characterized our presidential election campaign so far. Republican presidential candidates have called each other names like “fake” and “narcissistic” and “unprincipled flip-flopper,” and the president a “snob” and “job killer” – and those are the mildest. President Obama, instead of remembering that he is president of all the people, has dismissed Republicans as responsible for almost every tribulation of his presidency.

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