Civility…? Where…?

November 15, 2007

Today web news sites have been abuzz with reports of the happenings at a John McCain town hall meeting. It seems that the Senator from Arizona was asked “How do we beat the bitch?”, in apparent reference to Hillary Clinton: the only female in the race. While I am not above a fair amount of critical sarcasm, I do believe that the question goes way beyond; not because of the language but because of the attitude behind it.

It used to be that politics was about opinions and ideas and, when the debate ceased and the votes were tallied, the combatants would light a cigar, pour a drink, and catch up on each other’s family lives. Since negative campaigns and he said/she said disagreement has ruled the day, however, those moments have become endangered species. It is hard to come back from such personal attacks.

I ran as a Republican. I am proud to be a Republican. I am happy that Patrick Kennedy, my opponent in 2006, is proud to be a Democrat. While we disagree on some fundamental issues and have divergent beliefs about just how our nation can reach its potential, I do not believe for a second that he is a terrible human being because he does not agree with me and I certainly never got the indication that he dislikes me because I choose to run with the loyal opposition. Further, I refuse to accept that he loves trees more than he loves this nation and hope that he understands that my moral compass places people before country clubs. Unfortunately we are out of the mainstream in this day and age.

Some will criticize me, without doubt, for saying something nice about a Democrat. He may even take some heat because I have said something nice about him. It is the way of 21st century politics: “Democrats good… Republicans bad”. “No… Democrats bad… Republicans good”. Reality is that, just as our parents taught us when we were young, there is good and bad everywhere. We need to unlearn the rest of it.

Hear me Rhode Island: All Republicans don’t eat puppies. All Democrats are not good. Union bosses don’t always represent the interest of their rank and file and not all conservatives want to get rid of unions all together. Take away the Party line and listen to what your candidates have to say. You may be very surprised.

I was once told by a member of the general public that the best Republican strategy in the Ocean State might be to run all of our candidates in Democratic primaries. That way, the theory went, the voters would have to check out the candidates’ positions and not blindly follow their learned reaction. I’m not sure that it would do anything other than move people towards the incumbents or the candidates with better name recognition but it’s a novel idea. At least we could all sit down together afterwards and let go of some of the hate.

I had a conversation with Bill Lynch and Tim Grillo, from the Democratic Party, last week, after an event at Providence College, and covered this very same subject. I have respect for them and their beliefs. I hope that they have the same for me and mine.  Mr. Lynch and I agreed that some of the worst hate comes from intraParty factions. I guess that will be the new frontier. Before that happens , though, we need to take it back towards civility.

Don’t get me wrong. We will never get the disagreement out of politics. Truth be told, I enjoy the disagreement. It means that the process is still vital. We need to focus that disagreement on the ideas and issues, however. This nation will never move forward with its elected officials paralyzed by preconceived notions and shouting rude epithets from the rostrum. We move forward with the free and open debate of ideas and a citizenry that feels connected to their representatives.

It would be a bit of “back to the future” but, if we ever do manage to abandon the schoolyard stuff and get back to civility, I pledge that I will be the first to offer the olive branch to my opponent and light the cigars. I promise that I won’t order the puppy sandwich.

JPS

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The Ocean State dedicated the long overdue World War II Memorial today following a short parade, which began at the State House and ended at the Memorial site on South Main Street. It was a beautiful day to honor those who have served our nation with both valor and dedication and, though I have never served (or, perhaps, because I’ve never served), I thought it an obligation to attend the ceremony.

Many Rhode Islanders know the story of how funding has been lagging behind for a memorial to those who gave their lives in the second “war to end all wars” but lack of support for the project was not on the minds of those in attendance. The crowd was large, very much behind our troops, and appreciative of the vets who were there. The energy in the park and the stunning monument made me proud to be a Rhode Islander. I wish that I could say the same of the dedication ceremony itself.

I found myself reflecting on my belief that, had I been elected to Congress in 2006, I would not have joined the politicians on the rostrum. There is nothing partisan about my statement. Republicans and Democrats seemed equally eager to take the microphone and pander to the crowd of veterans and supporters. They were all equally mistaken that this was a day about them. I understand that this is the way that things are done. I understand that it is “the way we’ve always done it”, but enough is enough.

Had I been a sitting Congressman, I would have given up my seat behind the podium to someone who served during World War II and, instead of speaking to the folks in the crowd, I would have listened. I would have asked that the vet who took my seat  go to the microphone and tell the crowd a story about what the “greatest generation” faced as they stormed the beaches  at Normandy, as they fought in the Argonne, and as they flew missions over Midway. It was not a day to pander. It was a day to honor.

It was important to get this memorial up and for that, on behalf of the Ocean State, I thank Joseph Corrente and my friend Reggie Centracchio, who initiated the idea and Chaired the efforts respectively. I thank the donors who made things happen and I thank the contractors, many of whom donated their precious time. Mostly I thank the veterans of WW II, themselves. and that is who this day should have been about. Their numbers diminish by approximately 1000 per day nationwide and that is why, in the end, I chose not to stay until the end of the ceremony. You see, we have less and less opportunity every day to hear the stories; to learn the lessons. This was an opportunity to listen. I would have liked to have listened.

JPS