Has civility in public life become so rare that notable practitioners merit a prize?
That thought came to mind this week as Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona were honored for just that – a decades-long friendship marked by loyalty and good cheer, despite at-times sharp partisan differences.
But given the lack of civility in this year’s presidential contest, such recognition may be more needed than ever. This is the fifth year that Allegheny College, a small liberal arts school in Meadville, Pa., has awarded its Prize for Civility in Public Life, and Messrs. Biden and McCain saw fit to appear in person Tuesday to receive their award and make remarks.
Allegheny President James Mullen framed the issue as no less than a threat to American democracy.
“The tone of our public discourse is driving young people away from the political process,” said President Mullen to the assembled students, alumni, and other guests at the University Club in Washington. “Unless we regain a civil footing, our democracy risks losing a generation from American politics, and with it their passion, their commitment to justice, and their joy in service to others.”
The problem is far greater than a certain Republican presidential candidate who was alluded to, but went unnamed during the event. There’s the Republican who shouted “You lie!” at President Obama during a joint session of Congress in 2009. There’s the Democrat who, a few weeks later, declared from the House floor that the GOP health-care plan is “die quickly.” There’s Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, the once and probably future presidential candidate, who called his majority leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar on the Senate floor last year.
At the event on Tuesday, former Gov. Tom Ridge (R) of Pennsylvania introduced his old friends McCain and Biden, and cited examples of their public civility.
In 2008, as the GOP nominee for president, McCain encountered a woman at a town hall who disparaged then-Senator Obama as an “Arab.” McCain firmly but politely cut her off. “No, ma’am” he said. “He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
The Biden example came from his announcement last October that he wouldn’t run for president. The VP called for an end to the nation’s “divisive partisan politics,” and rejected the notion that “it’s naive to talk to Republicans.”
“I don't think we should look at Republicans as our enemies,” Biden said. “They are our opposition. They're not our enemies.”
The event at the University Club had a few light moments. McCain talked about how, long ago, he was the Navy’s Senate liaison, and literally carried the young Senator Biden’s bags on overseas trips.
“That was almost 40 years ago, and by God, I still resent it,” McCain quipped.
The senator also joked about losing to the Obama-Biden ticket eight years ago: He and Biden “served together in the Senate until 2008, when he helped deny me the job promotion I had worked very hard to get.”
Later, on a more serious note, Biden pointed out that he agreed to be Obama’s running mate on the condition that he not be asked to attack his friend McCain. Back in the ’70s, when McCain was technically working for Biden, the senator from Delaware said he viewed the injured war hero, fresh from solitary confinement, as “both my mentor and my confidant.”
“I strongly encouraged him to run for office,” Biden said. “It wasn’t hard at all to recognize the caliber of the man, the depth of his intellect, the power of his conviction.”
Over the years, the vice president said, the two have disagreed strenuously on issues “but never question the other guy’s motive.”
Allegheny College created the civility prize five years ago, “because we believe that a celebration of civility is the best antidote to incivility,” said Mullen, the college president.
Past winners are journalists David Brooks and Mark Shields; Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina; the women of the United States Senate, who worked together to help end the government shutdown of 2013; and former Montgomery, Ala., Police Chief Kevin Murphy, for taking off his badge and giving it to Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia in 2014 as an act of contrition for the police department’s treatment of Mr. Lewis in 1961.
“In accepting the award, each recipient has been quick to caution they are not nominees for sainthood,” Mullen said.
Indeed, in today’s highly charged political atmosphere, it’s impossible to escape criticism. In Tuesday’s New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman went after McCain for not standing up to his party’s presumptive presidential nominee, who has been lobbing ugly rhetoric at a federal judge who is of Mexican descent.
After the event, in an interview, Mr. Ridge conveyed his passion for improving public discourse.
“I’m tired of hearing people say, ‘Well, they used to have fistfights in the Senate.’ I know, and they used to have horses before they had cars,” said Ridge, who served as the first Homeland Security secretary. “So because they did that a long time ago, it doesn’t mean they should be doing it now. I just don’t buy that.”
Ridge blamed social media and the Internet, in part, for the coarseness in modern-day communication, “because you’re not accountable.” He recently penned a column in Time magazine lamenting the current state of affairs. After it came out, “some people called me everything but Tom,” Ridge laughed. “And that’s precisely the point. I have a strongly held point of view, and you can disagree with me if I’m wrong, but don’t call me names.”
Editor's note: The photo on this story was updated to show one of both Biden and McCain.