Monday, May 23, 2011

Let's Try Civility

By Pat Williams
The Policy Institute Leadership Seminar Series Convener

The Missoula City Club recently hosted Congressman Dennis Rehberg at one of our monthly public lunches. Congressman Rehberg was introduced by the president of City Club Board. As Dennis approached the podium, I arose from my chair, walked across the room and greeted him, the two of us, alone at the front of the room. We shook hands and exchanged a few words of friendship. I returned to my table, and Dennis began his presentation.

When the lunch had ended and I was leaving, a fellow stopped me and said, “Hello, Pat. I’m a Republican and I was surprised to see you walk up to Rehberg and shake his hand.” During the several weeks since that lunch, I have heard the same response from several others, “Are you and Rehberg friends?”

Twenty years ago, and for decades preceding that, such a greeting between members of Congress was commonplace. Party affiliation aside, members once respected each other and many were fast friends. The fact that some people attending that lunch seemed in a mild state of disbelief as they watched this former member of Congress, a Democrat, greeting the current congressman, a Republican, probably reflects more about today’s public mood than it does about their congressmen.

During the last half of my 18 years in the U.S. Congress, I recognized a significant change among many of my constituents in Montana. They were becoming very partisan, and it was reflected in their letters to me and also to the newspapers. Disagreements within and among those attending public meetings in Montana became common. Radio talk shows became forums for contention. A public rudeness was evident, not only in Montana but in other states as confirmed by my congressional colleagues from across the country.

It became evident — constituents had become more partisan than were their representatives. Many of my own constituents in Montana were far angrier and less willing to find compromise than was either I or my Republican colleague at the time, Congressman Ron Marlenee. Other representatives from across the country, both Republicans and Democrats, also began to notice the sudden ideological hardening of their constituents. Shortly thereafter members of Congress themselves began to reflect the mood of their voters and the effect was increased partisanship.

Soon, congressional Republicans and Democrats were at each other’s throats. A Speaker of the House, Jim Wright of Texas, was forced to resign by the crush of relatively minor charges of misbehavior. The person who chased him out, Congressman Newt Gingrich, was soon scandalized by both Democrats and Republicans and he too was forced from Congress. During the past two decades anger, retribution and — at times — ideological extremism have become almost commonplace. As with the games of ancient Rome, the feeding of the lions has only made the crowds scream for more.

In both the Montana Legislature and the U.S. Congress we have witnessed the election of candidates who in times past would have been roundly defeated at the polls because of their publically expressed extremism. The just completed Montana Legislature comprised many such people. Moderate members of that legislature, both Democrats and Republicans, agree with this; ask them, I have and find that people from both parties are appalled by the quirky actions of the recent Montana Legislature.

The question, of course, is who elected those people. Why, we did — you did; the angry voters did it. It is indisputable that most of those election victories were on the far right and reflect the anger and conspiratorial fears of those folks. However, none of us are immune from the political cancer that has invaded the body politic. We all must look in the mirror and accept our own responsibility — be it staying home on election day or writing nasty letters to the editor or making angry calls to talk radio. Let’s return to civility, respect and friendship.

Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana.

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