But as we hear the calls for civility coming largely from the left side of the political divide, Republicans should be careful to measure the stakes in this new civility game.
When you are being targeted for being uncivil, you should note that targeting people is, in itself, uncivil.
It’s a game that George W. Bush played badly. Yes, he did call for greater civility in his first inaugural address. In response, he was bashed on-and-off for eight years. Only 9/11 and the first days of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars produced something of a respite.
As soon as the Iraq war seemed not to be working out as planned, the Bush-bashing switched into high gear, consuming the last years of the Bush presidency.
At that time, no one on the political left was calling for more civility. They were defending themselves as brave dissenters.
In fact, most left thinking people were proud of themselves for having tossed Bush’s reputation into the gutter. They still insist that they want it to stay there.
When George Bush left office his name had become radioactive. Democrats were happy to present themselves as the Un-Bush. They promised and won an election in 2008 by claiming to put a quick end to the nightmare of the Bush administration.
Regrettably for some, this character assassination could not have happened without George Bush’s complicity. To the chagrin of many of his supporters and to the Republican party, George Bush failed to respond to the attacks. And he refused to allow his administration to respond.
He thought that he was choosing civility. He imagined that his silence would put him above the fray and would protect him from the attacks. He chose to look like a statesman and seems to have assumed that his gentility would discredit the calumny.
He was clearly wrong. He might have thought that there was a transcendent virtue in turning the other cheek, but the truth is, after a while you run out of cheeks. At that point, you have to fight back.
The Biblical adage might be understood to mean that you should not respond to every insult and slight. When you are attacked or insulted, you should first turn the other cheek. If your assailant attacks your other cheek, that means that his first assault was intentional and that you need to respond. If he does not attack you a second time, his first assault will have been shown to be inadvertent.
Even if Bush could have turned the other cheek the first time he was called a liar, continuing this rope-a-dope strategy when the blows kept coming was damaging to his reputation.
In politics, if you do not defend your reputation you are perceived to be saying that it does not deserve defending. Thus, that your critics are correct.
You do not look like you are above the fray. You look weak.
The real issue, and this is an issue for public relations specialists, is, how to respond without descending to the level of name-calling and vitriol.
If the choice is between either stooping to the level of your detractors or saying nothing, many people will choose silence.
Yet, that choice is too stark, too extreme, and even too dysfunctional.
First, and most obviously, when you are president you command a massive communications apparatus. Bush might have chosen not to speak personally about the attacks, but his failure to send out his spokespeople to respond vigorously to the attacks was a major public relations failure.
Of course, a president faces the press and the press is very likely to ask about his reaction to criticism. Most especially, when the criticism is coming from important political leaders. At that point, a president should respond, with civility, by dismissing the charges as groundless without engaging in the same kind bitter, partisan name-calling.
More recently, Sarah Palin has been attacked for being complicit in inciting Jared Loughner to commit murder and mayhem.
The criticism was coming from columnists and bloggers, but its intent was clear: to take down Sarah Palin, and, by extension, to discredit the Tea Party and other anti-Obama forces. It wanted them simply to shut up and stop criticizing the administration. After all, their rhetoric had been very effective.
As you know, Palin responded in an eight minute video that she posted on Facebook last week. In responses she suffered gales of criticism, especially for declaring that she had been the victim of a “blood libel.” It took the considerable authority of Alan Dershowitz to explain to the world that she had used the term correctly.
Overall, however, I do not think that she got it right. Before sharing my own views, let’s examine Bill Clinton’s views: “I very much sympathize with her anger. I think she genuinely was metaphorically wounded by these charges. Having said that, if you want to be a presidential candidate, you probably should let other people answer media critics, and you should deal with things that at a sort of presidential level. And it wasn't necessary, I think, for her to defend herself explicitly in an eight-minute video. She had plenty of people out there defending her against these unjust charges."
Clinton is both right and wrong. His condescending attempt at empathy misses the point. It’s not about Palin’s feelings; it’s about her reputation. By deflecting the focus to Palin’s feelings, Clinton is, consciously or unconsciously, diminishing her.
Then, Clinton adds that Palin should not have responded personally, but should have allowed others to defend her.
If we were talking about a president, Clinton would be correct. Presidents should not respond to bloggers and pundits.
But Palin is not a president. She is a private citizen. She might have hired a public relations firm to speak for her, but people would have then accused her of being too weak to speak for herself.
It’s fine to have your press secretary speak for you when you hold public office. If you are a private citizen with aspirations to be a public official, you need to speak for yourself.
But Palin did not get it right either. She took too long to respond to the calumny, and when she did, she did it in a video that seemed to be trying to make her appear to be presidential.
Her video seemed to have the trappings of an oval office address, which is not a good idea for someone who is not in the oval office. It did not make her appear presidential; it made her look like she did not know who she was.
Palin should have addressed the controversy more quickly, in a terse statement that put herself above it. Instead, she waited too long, played the victim, and diminished herself in the process.