A lot of talk lately about "civility" or lack therefore of in American politics. Apparently, all the town hall attendees, tea party protesters, and talk radio shock jocks have crossed a line of decorum that has previously been rigorously observed in our political realm. If we could only return to the glory days of discourse when political opponents respected the boundaries of civilized conversation and operated under a sort of Marquess of Queensberry rules of rhetoric, our society would be so much better off.
When I hear these lamentations about the "loss of civility" that supposedly mars our political process these days, I wonder when this era of good feelings and political civility that we've allegedly now lost is imagined to have occurred. For when I look back on the last forty-plus years of presidential politics, I'm hard pressed to recognize it.
How civilized was it when protesters outside the White House taunted Lyndon Johnson with "Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids have you killed today"?
Does anyone think opponents of Richard Nixon--who were hardly shy about expressing their seething hatred--accorded him any measure of civility?
I'm too young to remember myself, but when it comes to Gerald Ford his opposition may indeed have behaved in a civil manner. Of course, since the country was already laughing at his antics and pratfalls on a regular basis, they probably didn't feel the need to attack him much anyway. A president who goes around encouraging people to wear Whip Inflation Now buttons is really his own worst enemy.
By the time his administration mercifully came to an end, Jimmy Carter was ridiculed as an impotent, ineffectual bumpkin.
When Ronald Reagan was not being portrayed by his opponents as an affable jelly-bean eating dunce literally asleep at the switch, he was being demonized as a bloodthirsty warmonger who wanted to toss orphans out in the streets and make the elderly subsist on dog food before he unleashed nuclear Armageddon on the planet.
If you've ever watched the excellent documentary "The War Room" you know the manner in which George H.W. Bush was vilified by the Clinton crew.
Who of course had their own turn as targets of incivility over Whitewater, Vince Foster, and of course that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. According to his critics, a blue dress was the least of the stains left by President Clinton.
It's arguable that no president in modern history was more maligned by his opponents than George W. Bush. The examples of incivility directed his way are far too numerous to even begin to list here (although you can see good examples here).
But the absence of civility in politics is hardly a recent trend. You won't find a great deal of civility in the way opponents treated Truman or Roosevelt. Prior to America's entry into the Second World War, many Republicans regarded FDR as a greater threat to the country than any foreign enemy.
The Founding Fathers were hardly exempt from crude and rude political attacks. The claims made about and charges leveled at Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and yes even George Washington (gasp!) were far outside the boundaries of what one would now consider civil discourse.
So should Joe Wilson get a pass for his outburst during President Obama's speech? No. His behavior was inappropriate and out of line. But let's not pretend that the tenor and tone of the opposition to President Obama that we're seeing today is especially unusual or ahistorical. It's the way that politics has been played at the presidential level pretty much from the get go. You could say that it comes with the Oval Office.
Finally, let's stop equating opposition to or even incivility towards President Obama with racism. You may note that the skin color of the previous occupants of the White House hardly made them immune from experiencing it as well.