Sunday, May 8, 2016

My Mother's Lessons in Political Civility

The first thing I remember about the Kennedy-Nixon election is my parents sitting my oldest brother and me (ages 8 and 10) in front of the television for the presidential debate. She said, "You don't have to listen much, but you have to see this. It may never happen again."

I remember nothing else about the campaign (conducted before twenty-four hour news and raucous campaigning) except that Kennedy was Catholic (as we were) and a kid in the neighborhood thought he would do what the Pope said.

Rita and Miles in 1960.
The most striking memory is from the morning after the election, when Mom said, "Don't brag about Mr. Kennedy if you go to the Crocket's. They wanted Mr. Nixon and they will be sad." Sad, she said sad, so it must have really mattered to our next-door neighbors.

She was teaching respect for people with different views, something she did in thousands of ways on every topic (political or not) that came up. The big exception was in 1968 when George Wallace ran on his segregation platform. Wallace was "one-hundred percent wrong."

She did remark, several times, that he changed his thinking by his later term as Alabama governor. "Always be willing to change your mind." She didn't say that as often, since she usually examined all options before she spoke hers.

Both my parents voted for the person not the party, though they were pronounced Democrats. Mother pointed out that Maryland's Senator Charles Mathias and Congressman Gilbert Gude were "very good Republicans," for whom she voted.

She was not a fan of Richard Nixon because she thought Alger Hiss was innocent and that Nixon built his career on a lie. Her one intransigence was that she didn't want to read a book that came out in the 1980s or 1990s that seemed to show that Nixon may have been right.

She didn't make many disparaging political comments until Watergate, even given her dislike for Nixon, in general, and "Johnson's Vietnam War." She and my dad often mentioned that they weren't talking about "the soldiers in the war." I'm not sure every parent made that clear.

I believe Rita Rooney Orr made her most prophetic comment in the early 1970s. We were watching Walter Cronkite talk about the Watergate hearings and she said, "All over the country right now children are hearing their parents scream obscenities about the president of the United States. America will never be the same."

She wasn't talking as much about Nixon as disrespect for the office of president. She was right, and perhaps even more so about disrespect for presidential candidates.

If she were alive and Donald Trump were nearby, she'd give him one of her very rare spankings -- probably without the warning that always accompanied them. My single one was for convincing a younger brother to ride down the steps in a cardboard box. She always said a spanking hurt the parent more than the child, but she would likely not have been pained by the one for Mr. Trump.

In fairness, Trump's lack of civility is not unique. It is, however, far more damaging to the nation than a collective disdain for Watergate. It encourages a level of "us versus them" thinking that I don't believe has ever been seen in our nation.

Such thinking can only grow.

There may one day be two respected men or women running for the office who vow to conduct a campaign based on issues without any childish rhetoric. I long for an election like that, but my fear is that it will take a national tragedy to bring it. Not necessarily a political tragedy, maybe an earthquake that kills tens of thousands and destroys much of a region. We'll have to work together to absorb the violent shaking of lives and the economy. A 9.0 disaster in some form.

I wish my mother's civility on all families. I also wish she had been wrong about the rarity of presidential campaign debates.
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