With the start of the presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, voters will now take a closer measure of the candidates with one important yardstick: their degree of civility toward each other. So far the rhetoric of disrespect has been high. Voters could use a few examples of how politicians should behave. They need look no further than the mutual respect often seen between those who have already occupied the White House – many of whom were once bitter foes.
Last Saturday, for example, President Obama and former President George W. Bush opened the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. Mr. Bush helped launch the project and Mr. Obama, as the first black president, had the honor to see it finished. Their warmth toward each other was again on display. First lady Michelle Obama even gave Bush a hug, which made him glow.
A similar close relationship now exists between Bill Clinton and the man he beat in 1992, George H.W. Bush. They are not only friendly but have worked on projects together. Throughout American history, former presidents have often formed a bond based on the shared experience of making difficult decisions – a bond that was often missing during their days running for the office.
Why is this important to note?
At their last gathering in July after the shooting of five policemen in Dallas, Obama and his predecessor each spoke about the need for civil discourse in society, especially about race. Obama spoke of shared dignity and the “need to hear each other out.” And Bush warned that political arguments should not lead to animosity and dehumanization.
But Bush went further to say that civility helps people learn from the struggles and stories of their fellow citizens. In fact, he said, civil dialogue is about “finding our better selves in the process.”
His words are an echo of what Harry Truman said about his meeting with former presidents after his time in office: “Maybe a friendship with a person who has been through something like this could bring me to a different place as a human being; it detaches me from the old and gets me to a new place. It’s just a way of finding peace.”
Imagine if presidential candidates could learn to listen and value each other during a campaign in a way they might act after being president. Perhaps former (and current) presidents should meet more often in coming weeks to offer such advice about civility.