Our Slippery, Sliding Scale Of Civility

In 1973 - golly, is it 25 years already? - covering the Senate Watergate hearings for CBS, I was handed the first Nixon political enemies list while live on the air. With no idea of its contents, I proceeded to read, "Memorandum, Subject: On [expletive deleted] Our Political Enemies."

My bureau chief later told me of dozens of complaints from listeners about unseemly language. I pleaded that I had no way of knowing the White House would use such language.

What would those listeners think today hearing the chairman of a committee of the House of Representatives, California Republican Dan Burton, call the president a "scumbag"? And Rep. Henry Waxman, (D) of Calif., walking out of a hearing saying, "I leave this committee with absolute disgust for it and its chairman"?

By current standards, Speaker Newt Gingrich, accusing the president of "the most systematic obstruction of justice in history," passes for restrained language.

The week after these statements were made, two books crossed my desk - "Civility" by Yale professor Stephen Carter, and, in manuscript, "Campaign Etiquette" by Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Carter argues that "civility is a pre-condition for democratic dialogue," but that since the 1960s, civility has been going downhill. This is true not only in politics, but on highways, in sports, and in school, where 89 percent of teachers say they have heard abusive language from their pupils. Mr. Hess offers some media rules for election campaigns in uncivil times - for example, analyzing negative political ads rather than just repeating them, assessing what candidates say in campaign debates, and avoiding spin doctors. And for politicians going through the revolving door to join the media, labeling them by their previous jobs and ideology.

But how do we get back to civility in public life? Carter counsels, "Listen to others on the chance that they are right and we are wrong." I don't see that happening very soon.

Last year, Rep. Ray LaHood, (R) of Ill., helped to organize a retreat in Hershey, Pa., with 200 House members. It was called Project Civility. When civility becomes a project, something is wrong. But Mr. LaHood said that, with the media barred, the representatives came back feeling much better about each other.

That was last year. Looking at the House now, it appears that civility must have term limits.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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