By MARSHA MERCER
As we head into the mid-term elections, nobody expects 2010 to be uplifting.
Sad to say, we face another cycle of the negative ads, attack e-mails and character assassination we call campaigning.
But what if politicians took Jim Leach’s advice?
During the 30 years that Republican Leach represented southeastern Iowa in Congress, candidates often sought his counsel – and his advice shocked them.
You’re entitled to one fib on the campaign trail, he’d say.
Oh, the candidates protested, I never fib.
No, this one fib is OK, Leach insisted. “You just say as strongly as you can, `I respect my opponent.’”
And how did the aspiring political leaders respond? “They’d laugh. It was considered a joke,” Leach told me. “But it wasn’t a joke to me.”
He followed his own advice and says he actually did respect almost all his opponents. Here’s the key: Saying “I respect my opponent” causes you to do other things differently, he said.
Doing things differently is as much a trademark for Leach, 67, as his sweater-under-a-sport-coat look. An iconoclast, he shunned mudslinging and worked across party lines. Leach is a type of political animal that, unfortunately, is nearly extinct. He’s a GOP moderate who believes it’s better for the country if Republicans and Democrats work together.
Defeated for re-election in 2006, he taught at Princeton and Harvard. He backed Democrat Barack Obama for president and spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. The president then named Leach to head the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Leach is on a 50-state civility tour to draw attention to the idea that civilization requires civility.
“Words matter,” he said when he announced the tour. “Polarizing attitudes can jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety.” He visited Tallahassee, Fla., Columbia, S.C., and Charlotte, N.C. this week.
The thoughtful people who come to lectures on civility aren’t the ones who need to hear his message, but Leach finds many people anxious about the country’s direction. They want more from their national officials than political posturing.
“People aren’t identifying with the political system,” he said. Sinking approval ratings for Congress and both political parties are evidence people are fed up.
“My personal sense is the country wants to pull together. Government is pulling us apart,” he said.
The last two presidents promised to change the tone in Washington, and yet the capital is more bitterly divided than ever.
Other national figures also worry about this trend. Last Sunday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made an impassioned plea for bipartisan cooperation.
“I think it’s extremely important, the action is, to bring both of the parties together and to look at what they can do together, rather than to just talk about what they want to fight over. Let’s do it together,” Schwarzenegger, a Republican, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Leach blames both parties for today’s incivility in Washington. It’s inconceivable that Republicans cannot find some Democratic proposals they can support, and vice versa. Abolish the weekly Democratic and Republican party caucuses on Capitol Hill and bring the members together instead, and that situation might change, he said. But, of course, there’s no chance of that.
While acrimonious politics are as old as the Republic, what’s new and troubling are the proliferation of news and social media outlets that glorify the most outrageous speech and the speed with which hateful messages race around the country and globe.
“It looks as if a minority that are angry can cause larger ripple effects than their numbers indicate, and that sets a tone for society that’s self defeating,” Leach said. “The danger is that we as a country will stop pulling together as a unified whole. If we don’t pull together as a country, we’re going to find our position in the world weaker.”
Leach candidly concedes he doesn’t know what his civility tour will accomplish. “But I feel on a personal level I have to attempt it.”
Nothing is likely to change unless people demand it. Perhaps it’s time for voters to tell elected officials and those who aspire to office that we want leadership and cooperation, not more political shenanigans. Candidates can start by saying they respect their opponents, even if it’s a fib.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.