Everybody wants to go to heaven, the wise man observed, but nobody wants to die. It’s not a puzzlement. Everybody wants kind and gentle in our politics, but nobody wants to risk losing an election. That’s not such a puzzlement, either.
The passing of George Herbert Walker Bush, a genuinely decent, kind and polite man, has caught the country up in a frenzy of good feelings, and some kind, gentle and extremely naive folk are sure that Mr. Bush’s last, great gift to America will be a revival of a kind and gentle politics that once made America great. Or something like that.
There’s probably no going back, but there is an insatiable yearning in the land for a respite, a recess, a time-out in the practice of smash-mouth, anything-goes, take-no-prisoners politics. Everybody says so. There’s even a National Institute for Civil Discourse, not (yet) another government agency to grow one day into a bureaucracy, but a monitor of how politicians talk.
The institute and the American Psychological Association empaneled a gaggle of Ph.Ds not long ago for a “wide-ranging” discussion of the reasons for “the decline in civility and mutual respect and public discourse.” A commentator was recruited from National Public Radio to be the moderator and, presumably as a bow to an odd conception of ideological balance, one of the panelists was invited from CNN. They talked about why 60 percent of Americans, as revealed in one poll, feel stressed about “current social divisiveness” which in turn contributes to “the high levels of negativity in our social discourse.”
Negativity, said Arthur Evans of the institute, makes it often difficult for people holding different opinions to talk to each other because they give each other little room to make mistakes. “What that does then, it leaves only people at the extremes to talk about the issue, and so it reinforces the idea that the only way you can talk about this is in an extreme way.”
Who could argue with that? The argument is about the definition of extremes. We get a pretty good idea of how the institute defines extremes when it imagines that psychological balance is struck when NPR and CNN sit down to air out their differences, if any. There won’t be much blood left on the floor.
The idea that the politicians of the past have a lesson for us would have puzzled some of those politicians. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were two of the most eminent of those politicians, and when they opposed each other in the presidential election of 1800 they left buckets of blood on the floor. Both men knew what they were doing, and how to do it. They left the mudslinging to cut-outs, preserving their “right to effective deniability.”
The Jefferson camp accused the fleshy Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Slurs were in season. The Adams campaign called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Not a nice thing to say about his vice president. Accounts of the lurid campaign would have embarrassed and offended Donald Trump. Adams was called a “fool, a hypocrite, a criminal and a tyrant,” Jefferson a “weakling, an atheist, a libertine and a coward.”
The campaign got rough after that. “Adams and Jefferson spent much of the election season at their respective homes in Massachusetts and Virginia,” writes Kerwin Swing, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, and author of “Mudslingers: The 25 Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time.” The difference between them was that Jefferson hired a hatchet man to do his smearing and Adams, who thought himself too high-minded for such things, relied on the talent available in Boston to do the work pro bono.
Jefferson’s hatchet man, writes Prof. Swing, was effective, “convincing many Americans that Adams desperately wanted to attack France. Although the claim was completely untrue, voters bought it and Jefferson won the election.
Winning the election is what politics is all about, and men (and lately women) successful in it understand the rough wisdom of Leo Durocher, the famous baseball manager-philosopher who observed that “nice guys finish last.” The friendship that Adams and Jefferson nurtured in Philadelphia in 1776 survived. They became friends again after the brawl, just like George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton two centuries later.
It’s not a good way to preserve a friendship, but politicians, and particularly presidents, rarely hold grudges. They usually understand that “bashing,” as Mr. Bush called it, is not nice, but it’s inevitable. The stakes are too high for it to be otherwise.
Civility in politics is a good idea, but bashing works. Sad.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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