The Magazine

SMILE WHEN YOU SAY THAT

May 25, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 36 • By DAVID FRUM
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"Civility in politics: going, going, gone." So complained a headline in the New York Times this winter, and sine then hardly a week has gone by without some new offense being reported against good manners and even common decency. Cuddly felon Webb Hubbell worries that a deranged special prosecutor will indict his dog and cat to pressure him to lie about the president. The Annenberg Center released a study purporting to show that rudeness on the floor of Congress ha sunk to depths unplumbed since the mid-1930s. Two of the country's most praised thinkers, Stephen Carter of Yale and Deborah Tannen of Georgetown, have published books this spring deploring the incivility of American life and politics. Only a couple of weeks ago, Washington Post columnist David Broder unburdened himself of the judgment that the verbal excesses of Newt Gingrich deserve equal excoriation with the misdeeds of President Clinton. Not since Zoe Baird had to withdraw from consideration as attorney general because she neglected to pay her taxes has there been so much viewing-with-alarm in Washington. We are present, in other words, at the birth of a great national cliche. And like all cliches, it tells us a great deal more about the people who mouth it than about the situation those people imagine they are describing.


Are we in fact living through an epidemic of incivility in politics? To anyone familiar with American political history, it's an absurd claim. Politics today is gentler, more polite, even more mealy-mouthed than at any other time in American history. Leave alone what Henry Clay had to say about Andrew Jackson. Only 25 years ago, George McGovern was stumping the country charging that the Watergate break-in "was the kind of thing you expected under a person like Hitler." Fifteen years ago, Ronald Reagan's opponents were accusing him of starving the poor and blundering in to a nuclear war. Today, Democratic and Republican congressmen go on retreats together with their wives and children, and presidential debates begin with President Clinton urging that the candidates restrict themselves to exchanging "ideas" not "insults" -- and his opponent meekly complying.


Of course it's true, even in the era of the soccer mom, that people in politics sometimes say rough things about each other. And of course it's also true that politeness is to be preferred to impoliteness. But there are three things that ought to be noticed about the current wave of concern over incivility.


The first is how brazenly one-sided it is. Tannen's new book, for instance, repeatedly cites criticisms of President Clinton as examples of "vituperative, mean-spirited, personal attacks" that "stir up animosities that make it harder for people to work together." But on the one occasion she discusses Independent Counsel Ken Starr -- a man who has been the target of more than his share of personal vituperation -- she herself credulously repeats just such an attack: Starr is "a prominent Republican known for his animosity toward the president." It is curious, to put it mildly, that the sorts of concerns about incivility being voiced now, when a Democratic president finds himself under scrutiny, were utterly absent in, say, 1987, during the Bork hearings or in 1964, in the midst of a media campaign against Barry Goldwater that makes the treatment of President Clinton look by comparison like a tickertape parade.


Stephen Carter, to his credit, takes note of the "hysterical and vicious" campaign against Bork as the example of incivility. And even Tannen will concede that unjust things have sometimes been said about Republicans (like the story that George Bush didn't know what a supermarket scanner was). But in all the chin-stroking over incivility, the whiff of Democratic self-pity is strong. Clinton has repeatedly complained that he has been subjected to more and harsher criticism than any previous president. His memory is short. No protesters stand under his window shouting, "hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today." No Garry Wills is writing about him, winning respectful reviews by suggesting that he is mad or moronic. Nothing that any Republican has said about him remotely approaches the seriousness of the false charge that former Carter official Gary Sick flung at Ronald Reagan: that he treasonably plotted to delay the release of the Iranian hostages.