The coarser side of American politics was on view recently as Vice President Cheney and Sen. Patrick Leahy engaged in a brief exchange on the floor of the U.S. Senate. During the heated discussion the vice president used an expletive that is most often excluded from polite conversation, as well as public debate.
I am not upset because the VP knows the word and apparently knows how to use it. After all elected officials are human and are subject to all the limitations and weaknesses common to all human beings. The problem with the VP’s use of the word is what it reveals about the present state of political debate in this country and perhaps how the vice president sees himself in that mix.
In terms of the debate such atrocious language reveals the culmination of a long and gradual erosion of civility in public debate. The normal decorum on the Senate floor calls for members to address one another as “esteemed colleague,” or “the good gentleman or gentlewoman.” That Mr. Cheney would direct such language at a fellow politician is an indication that the gloves are off and all protocol suspended.
The demise of civility in public debate has many facets—attack ads, character attacks, distortion or exaggeration of fact. Politics has become the bloodiest of all blood sports, and democracy is not the better for it.
There is a personal element to this that is also troubling. That the vice president would use such language may be an indication that he sees himself above the need for such niceties as civility and courteous behavior. If he believes he occupies some higher level of political existence because of his party dominance and his office, then he may feel a certain license to say whatever he wants to lesser beings of the other party who hold inferior positions. Of course, if that is the way he feels about a U.S. senator, where do the rest of us fall on the list?
Of course there is a moral element. The Bush administration has thrown around the name of Jesus more than any administration in recent history. And while it is true that Mr. Cheney never said Jesus was his favorite political philosopher you would think the Jesus-infused climate of the White House would serve to temper his coarser side.
I am reminded of several passages from the New Testament. Jesus saying that a tree shall be known by its fruit comes to mind. Then there is the insight of the Apostle James who warned that the tongue can be “a restless evil, full of poison.” He went on to write, “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” All of which is to say what comes out is often an indication of what is within.
As we pause this coming week to celebrate our nation’s birthday, we might do well to remember that the founders valued the spirit of honest and vigorous debate. Whether out of sense of moral or political superiority, or just the result of many years of practice, Mr. Cheney’s behavior subverts this spirit. The only way we can achieve the high ideals of democratic rule is for all of us to remember that those who disagree with us on the other side of an issue are not the enemy; they are but fellow citizens who champion a different piece of the same dream.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church, Auburn, Ala.