Lost art of gentler politics
Commentary by Pat Murphy
A few noble efforts at reversing the
Hell-bent rush to make U.S. politics impossibly hateful does not a revolution in
public nicety make. Nevertheless, relish these fleeting moments.
Long and loud, some of our elder statesmen
have lately lamented the lost art of statesmanship and collegiality, whom they
fear are possessed by the devil of ugliness.
My longstanding theory is that modern
politics is a continuing blood sport because of smart aleck political
strategists whose genius for negative campaigns is egged on by the sound-bite
But along comes Bill Clinton, the 42nd
president, and George W. Bush, the 43rd president, to demonstrate that refined
behavior and a gentle touch can work even with men whose politics are implacably
and intractably at odds.
At the White House unveiling of Clinton’s
official portrait, Bush was flawlessly generous, complimentary and magnanimous
about Clinton and his service to the country.
For his part, Clinton returned Bush’s
kindnesses, adding he hoped for the day when politicians no longer saw good or
bad in their opposites, but whether they were right or wrong on issues.
The hunger for decency in public discourse
repeated itself several times during funeral eulogies for Ronald Reagan with
anecdotes--of how the Republican president and fiercely Democratic Speaker of
the House Tip O’Neill forgot differences at 5 p.m., and engaged in jovial amity
and of conservative Barry Goldwater’s odd-couple palsy-walsy friendship with
liberal President John Kennedy.
Which brings up John J. Rhodes, the first
Republican sent to Congress from Arizona since 1912 statehood when he was
elected in 1952, who remained 30 years, including a stretch as House minority
leader during Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Rhodes died last year at 86 of cancer
after one arm was amputated.
Last week, Rhodes’s widow, Betty (she
preferred Betty over her given name Elizabeth) included me on a list of John’s
friends asked to share their remembrances for a collection organized by Arizona
State University, "Remembering John Rhodes." John’s former press aide, Jay
Smith, also is writing a book.
Rhodes never had a serious enemy. He was
gentle. His puckish, chipmunk grin was an endearing first impression.
I also remember the contrasts with his
senate colleague from Arizona, Goldwater: Rhodes was smooth, Goldwater
rough-edged and straightforward, but both were effective.
They also were statesmen who placed
country above party: Rhodes and Goldwater, along with Pennsylvania’s Sen. Hugh
Scott--all Republicans--trooped up to the Oval Office and told Richard Nixon he
was finished because of Watergate. Nixon resigned. Today’s presidents can count
on blind Capitol Hill fealty, regardless of their malfeasance.
In his retirement years, I exchanged notes
with Rhodes (Betty took dictation from him for his last note to me because of
his amputation). Rhodes shared sadness about the low state of politics. He was
candidly harsh about Republicans.
Without suggesting it, the gentle Rhodes
provides a model contrast with the current Republican House leader, Tom DeLay,
who relishes the crude nickname bestowed in his honor, "The Hammer."