An evening of contrasts. An era of contrasts.
I happened to watch a YouTube video of a comedian performing at the Reagan White House. He kept his audience in stitches.
Laughing together in the front row were the president and his wife. To their left were Howard Baker and his wife. Baker was a former senator, known as the “great conciliator”. A man of steady civility during political skirmishes.
On the president’s right sat Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill. He and the president nudged each other as they roared together in laughter.
I knew they had battled over legislation. They said nasty things about each other. But they had also maintained something of a cordiality before the cameras.
And they compromised in their work. For our sake. O’Neill’s biographer said O’Neill resisted Reagan’s moves. He did not obstruct. Key difference in those words and actions.
O’Neill described his strategy: “We’re going to cooperate with the president. It’s America first and party second. We’re going to give ‘em enough rope. They can use it either to herd cattle, or make a mistake…They’ve got to deliver.”
Googling O’Neill I was served up several articles about his relationship with Reagan. One was headlined “Can Donald Trump Learn From Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill?” Another was headlined “What Today’s Democrats Can Learn From Tip O’Neill’s Reagan Strategy.”
Whatever lessons that exist to be learned, neither side seems to have learned them.
Immediately after the YouTube video I saw photos of Nancy Pelosi berating President Trump in that day’s White House meeting. Each claimed the other suffered a meltdown. Nancy and company apparently stormed from the meeting. She insulted Trump. He insulted her. During the meeting. And after the meeting, for reporters.
Maybe there is a heaven. Maybe O’Neill and Reagan lounge on clouds there. We don’t know. But we do know these two are not assisting their replacements down in Washington.
We can blame Nancy and Donald. Because each has flung gasoline on the fires of their disagreements. Each has insulted. Each has postured. Each has name-called. Many times.
And now, of course, Nancy has green-lighted impeachment proceedings against him in her house. She has given her blessings to mean-spirited private machinations against the president.
We are never likely to see these two clink glasses at a state dinner. Or laugh together at White House entertainment. If past and current behavior is a guide, neither will adopt O’Neill’s strategy of America first, party second.
It is easy to blame these two bickering figures. Easy, but misguided. That is because they are merely elected figures in a society that reeks of uncivil behavior.
Voices from our mass media are shrill and filled with condemnation. Discussions on some popular TV shows contain no discussion. Rather, they overflow with verbal sewage.
In too many instances in society we witness the death of “I respectfully disagree. But have you considered…?” Standing upon its corpse is “What a crock of crap you spew.”
Here is a remark that you will hear the likes of when Nancy and Donald swirl around a dance floor. Or when hell freezes. Voltaire’s “I disapprove with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
That attitude is as alive as granite.
Ironically, we still witness civility in Congress. There, the rules of engagement straight-jacket the native savageness of the members. Which is exactly what they were designed to do.
Speakers must use expressions like “Mr. Chairman, I request that my honorable colleague from the great state of Idaho recognize a point of order…”
These days, if we removed the rules, we would probably hear “I demand that the windbag traitor from Texas whose fat backside overflows his chair…”
(Oddly, the opposite is true in Britain’s House of Commons. In the corridors, members honor each other with civil tongues and clever remarks. In the Commons, at times, they rage at each other like drunken yobs after a football game. They ought to be checked for weapons as they enter.)
Ah, well, these days too many of us reject civil behavior as old hat. We grind old standards under foot. I am reminded of this when I see guests in T-shirts at some funerals and weddings. Clean tee-shirts. After all, I do get invited to the more respectable events.
Do you take this woman to be…? “Yeah, whatever.”
Contact Tom Morgan at email@example.com.