As a young man, President George Washington assembled a collection of social guidelines that he titled, “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.” The rules addressed a wide range of social etiquette, beginning with “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.” I suspect he collected the rules to guide his daily life and to maintain the respectable reputation he is famous for.
In the day and age of the Tea Party’s thunderous emphasis on our colonial ideals, would it be too much to ask that we also consider our first president’s rules and encourage a more civil discourse? In Delaware, political leaders reduced a U.S. Senate race to a farcical comedy. In New York, we heard a gubernatorial candidate threaten a reporter in a conflict that nearly came to fisticuffs. In Maine, the GOP nominee for governor vowed to tell the U.S. president to “go to hell.”
Last night at a U.S. Senate candidates’ debate, a woman was stomped outside the venue. It goes on and on. Where is President Washington’s desired culture of respect and civility?
We face serious issues and challenges. Rarely will the answers be black or white. This means that the best possible results for our communities, states, and nation will be born from fruitful debate and constructive compromise. Despite bombastic campaign rhetoric, governing in today’s world and economy is not a zero-sum game.
I understand that we, the people, are frustrated and angry. Unemployment persists at painfully high levels. Foreclosures continue to displace thousands of families. And taxes of all varieties keep government hands in our wallets. We have every right to be livid. But our leaders, and those who wish to be our leaders, should rise to President Washington’s higher calling for civil behavior. Leadership is neither simple nor easy, but a great personal challenge. This uncertain period in our nation’s history requires our leaders to rise high above the base – and lead.
A recent survey conducted by the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College revealed that a clear majority of Americans believe the tone of political discourse has worsened since President Obama took office. And just last week, a Pew Research/National Journal Congressional Connection poll showed that more than three quarters of Americans feel our leaders are bickering more than normal, earning both parties in Congress rock bottom approval ratings. We, the people, desperately want our public officials to guide us forward.
Yet, when some leaders display the political courage to cross partisan borders and effect meaningful policy changes, they incur the wrath of party colleagues. At a recent forum at the Washington National Cathedral, Republican U.S. Senator Susan Collins of Maine lamented the lack of cooperation and civility among her colleagues. After her well-considered vote in support of the $787 billion economic stimulus bill, Collins earned hurtful rebukes from her own GOP peers. She noted that the attacks for working with President Obama were “extremely personal and painfully nasty.” This is not a fitting reward for her following President Washington’s spirit of respect.
A bipartisan group of 130 former Members of Congress recently issued a challenge to current political leaders, encouraging Congress to embrace some semblance of bipartisanship during these difficult times. The challenges for average Americans are too great to ignore. Our nation is far beyond the time for political brinksmanship. To quote an independent candidate for Maine’s governorship, “Folks, the party’s over.”
Aside from great operational failures, I fear that the present adversarial demeanor poses great risks to our nation’s reputation. America is a historic, glowing beacon of liberty and hope, not an oven for anger and rage. When we look up to our leaders to set the societal tone, and instead their conduct leads us to crudity, we have the ingredients for a reputation crisis.
Washington closed his collection with his final rule of civility: “Labour to keep alive in your breast that little celestial fire called conscience.” More than 250 years later, President Washington’s words ring true and should provide sound counsel to our public leaders.