Civility is rewarded

April 10, 2017
Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

Political feuds can be fierce, even deadly. Contemplate the fate of Alexander Hamilton, the former secretary of the treasury who was killed in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804.

But for every Hamilton and Burr, there are other dug-in opponents who have managed to set their differences aside and become friends.

Our second president, John Adams, was apparently so miffed at his defeat at the hands of Thomas Jefferson that he declined to attend Jefferson’s inauguration. But the two were able to patch it up to the point that they enjoyed friendly, thoughtful correspondence about politics, philosophy, aging and religion, and both died July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Then, 150 years after Adams and Jefferson died, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford both vied for the presidency, and no mercy was shown in either quarter. Carter said Ford had not “accomplished one single major program for this country,” as president, while Ford accused Carter of being a waffler.

Relations were frosty for years after the election, but the two ultimately became good friends. Among other things, they monitored foreign elections together and made a pact that, whoever died first, the survivor would deliver the eulogy at their funeral. Carter followed through upon Ford’s death in 2006, saying they “enjoyed each other’s private company. And he and I commented often that, when we were traveling somewhere in an automobile or airplane, we hated to reach our destination, because we enjoyed the private times we had together.”

Other examples come to mind: the pragmatic friendship between President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill; and the rapport shared by strongly conservative Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, perhaps the ultimate liberal.

Such friendships seem increasingly rare in a polarized, partisan atmosphere in which opponents are relentlessly demonized and could well share little in common personally.

It hardly creates the ground for comity or compromise.

Those friendships still exist, though, and on Monday Allegheny College in Meadville gave its Prize for Civility and Public Life to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the family of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Despite having been ideological opposites, Ginsburg and Scalia both loved opera, and their families got together on New Year’s Eve. When Scalia died in February 2016, Ginsburg said, “We were best buddies.”

The college’s president, James H. Mullen, remarked that Scalia and Ginsburg’s disagreements “were acute, representing opposing interpretations of the Constitution. Yet they forged a friendship grounded in mutual respect for the intellectual integrity and love of country that each brought to service on the court.”

Mullen added, “Theirs is a powerful example for our civic leaders – an example we need now more than ever and an example of our leaders should emulate in carrying out the nation’s business.”

Mutual respect.

Recognizing the humanity of your opponent. Where did these principles go, and how can we get them back?

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