Civility yes, milquetoast no

In the recent rush for civility, for making our political discourse sweet, pure and very nice, Let’s heed the warning of moderation in all things and not shrink from sentences like the one below.

“His speeches left the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea; sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork.”

The author was William McAdoo, a senator who became treasury secretary under Woodrow Wilson, more than once tried to get the Democratic nomination for president, never succeeded, but did succeed in superbly ridiculing a Republican president’s speechifying. He was writing about Warren G. Harding, who won the White House by the biggest recorded margin ever on his way to administrative pratfalls, scandal and premature death after less than three years in office.

To me, it’s priceless, this poke that tickles the reader as it leaves the subject with the vainglorious wind knocked out of him, and I say fine, go for it. There are obvious rhetorical limits, such as vulgarity, defamation, deceptions, hate and bigotry. Comedian Bill Maher’s anti-Catholic rants strike me as little more than a white sheet’s distance from a Ku Klux Klan rally, for example, and that’s not OK. But neither should we want a national goal of mindless mush, forever fearing to give offense when voicing unpleasant truths might be the best way to defend principle or squelch iniquity.

I am not contradicting President Obama’s Tucson speech, I hope. I appreciated his thumping the thesis that political rhetoric caused the shooting there. I liked his call for honest, civil debate, because brain-dead brutishness gets us nowhere and rational discussion helps. The grief informing Obama’s words should hardly set the tone for all occasions, however. Though not in the Maher style, we especially do need wit, or more specifically, satire, described by a craftsman of that genre as “imperfect tenderness.”

If you want to get an idea of just how imperfect, catch a political skit on “Saturday Night Live,” or tune in Jon Stewart and his “Daily Show.” These TV performances, ordinarily to the left, can be pretty good at doing what satire is supposed to do, at showing up absurdities, contradictions and pomposities. For more with much the same mocking tone from the right, you might read Ann Coulter, who is very, very bright, straightforward, insightful and funny as she shatters liberal nonsense, or Mark Steyn, one of my favorites, a brilliant writer whose tenderness has also been called into question.

The current list could easily be extended, but let’s go back to the 19th century, to Abraham Lincoln, and after asking whether this hero of American history could ever have said something cutting, I will answer by revealing what he told someone about Stephen Douglas’s reasoning ability. It was, he said, as thin as soup made from the shadow of a starving pigeon.

Maybe there are some who think that kind of remark unacceptable and want to make ours either a nation of milquetoasts or one where one side shuts up while the other has its say. I’ve got just the right ghost to sic on them, that of H.L. Mencken, maybe the greatest journalistic satirist who wrote in 20th century America.

He, too, attacked hapless Harding’s speeches, and if it seems Harding has faced enough denigration for one column, let’s pretend Mencken’s joyful slam is aimed instead at one of those incredibly uncivil diatribes against the supposed incivility of people whose greatest sin was to expose some leftist hallucination.

“It reminds me of a string of wet sponges, it reminds me of tattered washing on the line … of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically … It is rumble and bumble, it is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”


Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso and Denver, is now a columnist living in Colorado and a Centennial Institute Fellow.

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