Whitehouse: Bring back civil discourse

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 10:05pm

It has been a few days now since Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at a Tuscon “Congress at Your Corner” event.

Lost to humanity were a little girl born on 9/11, a federal judge, an elderly man who shielded his wife from the hail of bullets, a community activist, a retiree from New York, and a woman there to ask Rep. Gabrielle Giffords about some of her political positions.

But before the crime scene could even be processed, pundits were passing blame back and forth as rapidly as the bullets that came from Loughner’s gun. It was Sarah Palin’s ad that had sniper scopes on it, it was tea party rhetoric, it was the isolated act of a deranged madman, it was this, it was that.

Briefly, a discussion came forward that politics had gotten too mean and personal. Candidates and elected officials on both sides of the aisle have degenerated discourse to a level more appropriate for an episode of Jerry Springer. But that discussion faded quickly and by Monday, less than 48 hours after the shooting, the topic was relegated to filler on the 24-hour news channels.

Prior to becoming a journalist, I spent more than 20 years working on political campaigns and witnessed some of the worst — or at least more disturbing — aspects of civic life. While nothing can come close to what happened in Tuscon, I couldn’t help but recall what I had seen as I watched coverage of Saturday’s shooting.

The first was back in the early 1990s and it was juvenile. The night our candidate won, we came out of our campaign headquarters and found that every car that had our candidate’s sticker on it had been keyed.

From there it got worse.

I had a punch thrown at me at one event. I saw someone holding up what they claimed to be an aborted fetus in a jar and tried to shove it into the face of someone he disagreed with while screaming “Is this what God wants?!” I have answered the phone at many a campaign headquarters where I have been berated and warned that we all better watch our backs. Of course there were the occasional bomb threats — back then, we just hung up and went about our day.

The worst would have been a campaign I worked out West. On two separate occasions, I arrived at work early in the morning to find that overnight someone had thrown buckets of feces all over the doors and windows of our campaign headquarters. The smell, as you can imagine, was overpowering.

Through it all I found that my professional counterparts on the other side of the aisle were good people I disagreed with politically, but I enjoyed their company. Once while I was working in Florida, I discovered that I had checked into the same hotel where an old friend from Washington, D.C., was staying. We were both there to work on a special election — against each other. It was a great experience. We worked hard as opponents all day and then often met up for a drink at night.

Over time, though, something changed. People I worked with didn’t want to or couldn’t talk to people on the other side. My friends on the other side found that more and more of their co-workers were doing the same thing. Civility was dying.

Almost a decade ago I left the life of a political operative. I thought I had lost my edge, but looking back I realize now that the “edge” had gotten sharper than I was willing to play with. It’s politics, not personal.

I grieve for those that lost their lives in Tuscon, and I hope that civil discourse will once again find its way into the American political process.

27 Comments on this post:

By: govskeptic on 1/12/11 at 6:26

Cudos Ken for your seeing the light. This opinion like so many
others from the press comes after just as much or more from those
who spewed vile comments about our previous President and any
policy that was put forth. It's being used as a phony attack on
those whose voices have distaste for the liberal agenda that has been
running rapidly through the country for many yrs now. Those with
the big microphones/ink are more to blame than the average
American citizen/voter with the discourse problem!

By: Captain Nemo on 1/12/11 at 6:50


What about the vile comments about our present President?

By: yogiman on 1/12/11 at 7:41

Our nation of today is not the same as the nation of 1990. The quality of politicians of today are not the same as the politicians of 1990.

Politicians used to 'serve the people'. The politicians of today feel they must 'control' the people, and those thoughts are on both sides of the aisle.

The occasion in Tuscon was not a political issue. It was a mentally incapacitated young man that did the firing.

By: Captain Nemo on 1/12/11 at 7:46

It was in the 90’s when the Contract with America took place and that was about the time we started our downward slide.

I have always felt like it was a Contract on America.

By: Captain Nemo on 1/12/11 at 7:49

Occasion sounds so leisurely. This was a horrific act.

By: serr8d on 1/12/11 at 7:53

It started when Democrats began to attract the lowest of the low as voters: the Looter - Moocher symbiosis. To promise Other People's Money for votes in order to stay in power. Now, they've all but broken us with their decades of entitlement programs and their exploiting 'hate the RICH!' envy.

That, and Americans have grown soft and weak ever since the late '60's. Our culture is depraved; the people who fought for this country in WWII and survived, starving mostly, would look at their children's children as creatures of comfort with greater expectations than determinations.

Democrats palaver to these sorts. They've attracted vermin, but they like the votes.

By: serr8d on 1/12/11 at 7:57

Oh. I came here to give you this:


From Bloomberg:

Canadian banks, involved in a record $15.9 billion of acquisitions last year, may target U.S. lenders such as SunTrust Banks Inc., Zions Bancorp and Regions Financial Corp. to expand abroad, analysts said.

HELL, NO. We have plenty of SunTrust and Regions Banks in this area. If you recall your history, SunTrust was Nashville's own Third National Bank; Regions was once Nashville's own First American Bank. Ronald Reagan opened up 'Interstate Banking' (his worst mistake AFAIC) and we lost those powerhouses (and Commerce Union Bank, now Bank of (HA!) America).

If Canada buys any of our banks, we ALL need to move our accounts to a locally-owned bank. Screw Canada.

That is all.

By: Captain Nemo on 1/12/11 at 8:20

Late 60’s Nixon, Ford, Regan, H. Bush, Clinton, W. Bush and Obama; that makes it 7 men in office and 5 where Conservatives Republicans.

The last of which sent this country in a financial declined. It was under Clinton that the country was ahead.

By: serr8d on 1/12/11 at 8:40

Bush 41 and Bush 43 were NOT Conservatives. Reagan was the only Conservative on your list. Bush 41 was added to Reagan's ticket by Blue Blood Republicans who feared his Conservatism.

Clinton was Slim (but fat) Shady; he had his good points, but he allowed the far-Left to insinuate itself into Democrat politics (via his wife and her associations). The far-Left has controlled the once-proud Democrat party since then; until Democrats toss off the far-Left (and loose the Moochers) they are of little use or value to this Republic.

The Tea Party is a feared grass roots reaction to BOTH far-Left Democrats and to the pragmatic Bush - McCain blue-blood Republican elites who 'go along' with Democrats and in doing so 'lose more slowly'.

True Americans will find their way home to the Tea Party, where there are few Moochers found.

By: Captain Nemo on 1/12/11 at 8:46

The pig boy only proves what I have been saying. He is one of yours Ben.

By: yogiman on 1/12/11 at 9:09

Billy Boy improved the economy by downgrading the military. Why do we now have National Guardsmen in overseas combat now? I understood they were only to protect our nation at home and the (now eliminated) State Guards protected their home states.

George Wallace caused the State Guard to be abolished because of his use of them against Dr. King, but why don't we have a full capacity of services?

By: Loner on 1/12/11 at 9:57

Great essay, Mr. Whitehouse.

I think that we can track the course of civility, or the lack of it, in American politics, but we should keep in mind the historical perspective. This nation has a long history of yellow-journalism and muckraking. Name-calling, ad hominem and vile invective are nothing new; but that does not excuse it.

Today, we have the electronic media and a "wired" global village; the communications technology has made quantum leaps in the past few decades. As a result, demagoguery has new platforms to use.

Things were relatively civil when the Fairness Doctrine was in force. When Ronald Reagan struck that policy down, the rule book went into the dumpster and for-profit, capitalism was allowed unfettered access to the news gathering-reporting business.

Today, with the advent of cable and "dish" media sources, spun news has become the norm, not the exception. The reasoning is this: if the viewer-listener does not like the bias, they are free to find a source biased to their liking.

With this dynamic in place, the bias and rancor will only get deeper and more strident. This is what mindless governmental de-regulation brings about over time.

By: serr8d on 1/12/11 at 10:23

Loner misses being coddled by Big NannyState Government! Supplying every need and desire, and ensuring that ALL Americans have, instead of equal access to strive to make themselves better on a personal level, equality of outcomes so that no one can succeed unless ALL succeed.

"From each according to their ability, To each according to their needs", right, Loner?

By: budlight on 1/12/11 at 11:11

By: Captain Nemo on 1/12/11 at 6:50

What about the vile comments about our present President?

What about our present president saying he'd "bring a gun to the fight if Republicans bring a knife"? Answer the question. Quit burying the issue under your liberal carpet.

Obama started talking GUNS during 2008 ? Why? Is he to be excused from inflaming people? Isn't 2008 when this nut cake went to a meet and greet and got a letter from the congresswoman? hmmmmmmmmm!

By: treefrogdk on 1/12/11 at 11:11

"nobody's right if everybody's wrong"

By: slacker on 1/12/11 at 11:17

''If loving you is wrong.. I don't wanta be right''

By: JohnGalt on 1/12/11 at 11:29

Civil discourse could start with politicians themselves. Have you ever seen or heard an ad soliciting your vote that did not claim the candidate would "fight for you"?

By: Loner on 1/12/11 at 11:40

Loving eyes can never see.

You mis-characterize my views, Serr8d, I am no fan of the nanny state. I'm no fan of Darwinian capitalism, dynastic democracy or mob rule. I like the level playing field, equal opportunity idea. I judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, not how it treats its most capable citizens.

We are not that far apart on some issues, Serr, I own guns too. I hate paying taxes, just like you do. I like balanced budgets, fiscal responsibility and the right to pursue happiness, without unwarranted government intrusion. We both salute the same flag. We should look for common ground, not more areas of disagreement.

Chances are, we may admire some of the same artists and sports heroes. We may both admire the same historical figures and what they stood for. Let's seek the common ground, old friend.

By: Loner on 1/12/11 at 11:48

Good point, John Galt. The attack ads are quite vicious. When reasonable people start to act in an uncivil manner, the unbalanced individuals on the extremes feel emboldened to act.

As we have learned from history, political ideology, like religion, is good cover for sadists, creeps and psychotic killers. Political activism can be the good reason masking the real reason for personal motivation.

By: yogiman on 1/12/11 at 11:52

Good thought, Loner, but you should have included "all 'a y'all". Not just one person. May I join you?

By: Loner on 1/12/11 at 11:53

Remember the "nuclear option" in Congress? Violent imagery is commonplace in the halls of Congress. Nutjobs take these rhetorical throw-away lines as their marching orders. You know that some knucklehead is contemplating a real "nuclear option" for the federal government.

By: Loner on 1/12/11 at 12:00

Yes, Yogi, join hands with us as we sing Kum-By-Yah around the campfire of comradery.

Everyone, join hands and sing with us:

Kum ba ya, my lord...
Kum ba ya...(3x)
Oh , Lord.. Kum ba ya

Someone's cryin' Lord... Kum ba ya
Oh , Lord.. Kum ba ya

Someone's prayin' Lord...
Kum ba ya...
Oh, Lord.. Kumbaya...

Someone's singin' Lord ...
Kum ba ya...

oh, Lord ... Kumbaya... Kumbaya...
Kumbaya , my Lord

By: pswindle on 1/12/11 at 12:37

With NRA in control of TN and the GOP, we could have an AZ right here in our state. We have crazy, gun loving people living right next door to us. Thanks John Harris for making all of this possible.

By: budlight on 1/12/11 at 12:47

Another point: When a crazed muslim doctor shot 14 people ON A MILITARY BASE, did the commander and chief show up? NOT. This Arizona incident plays right up his domination of all, left wing agenda. Commander in chief should have visited personally everyone that the crazed muslim doc shot. Did he? nope. Did the civilian who took down the doc get a medal of honor from Obama? I don't recall seeing where the 5'1" female got commended. Did I miss that Obama declaration of heroism?

By: yogiman on 1/12/11 at 1:12

You're singing too fast, Loner. Slow down.

By: yogiman on 1/12/11 at 1:24

Things were different in that situation, budlight. don't you understand?

Doesn't it make you wonder why these (so-called) Barack Obama lovers can't see what this man is trying to do to our nation? Is it because he is considered black? Hell, I thought he was white.

All things considered; What do they know about him? Answer: Nothing. Why? Answer: Because he doesn't want them to know anything about him. Why? Answer: Because he knows who he is.

By: budlight on 1/12/11 at 6:00

What America needs now is a new awakening to love, peace, forgiveness and God.