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Wednesday, June 23, 2004


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 industry.

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."


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