Today's Political Debate: So Easy Even a First-Grader Can Do It
Around the State
When I was a young lawyer in Miami, I found myself in depositions day after day with two far more experienced lawyers who just couldn’t get along.
They would raise objections over anything and everything. They routinely argued and raised their voices. One day while these officers of the court were exchanging insults, one of them said, “That’s OK, because I’m made of rubber and you’re made of glue and whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.” Welcome back to the first grade.
Fortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule in the practice of law. Generally, in the professional world, people behave in a more civil and adult fashion. Even some people in the entertainment industry realize there is a limit to how far you should go when debating an issue. I was standing next to a statewide elected official who was talking to rap star “P. Diddy” about the 2000 election (it’s a long story). P. Diddy insisted that Republicans “stole the election.” Trying to argue facts in that situation was pointless -- no one was going to change his mind. Before things got out of hand, the rapper said, “I guess we will just have to agree to disagree.” Not a bad solution for a guy who recorded a song called “Vote or Die.”
Unfortunately, in today’s political arena people no longer agree to disagree -- they try to destroy the other side. The ability to debate issues without harsh words and personal attacks seems to have become a rare quality. It hasn’t always been that way. There was a time in the world of politics where the best statesmen used creative and artful words to make their point.
Over the course of his career, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John McCormack of Massachusetts, had concluded that during debate it was best to speak well of others or say nothing. He was only known to have spoken out against someone one time -- Adolf Hitler. Speaker McCormack said, "Adolf Hitler, I want you to know, is someone for whom I absolutely have a minimum of high regard."
What a great line. A close second is Winston Churchill’s quote, “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”
Some politicians have used far less tact. One British politician said Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was "a self-made man and worships his creator." Some political barbs -- particularly during campaigns -- have been even more biting. In the 1996 presidential election race, before becoming Bob Dole's running mate, Jack Kemp said that when Dole's "library burned down, it destroyed both books -- and Dole hadn't finished coloring in the second."
Then there are the political gaffes -- like Dan Quayle’s “potato” or Sarah Palin saying “we must stand with our North Korean allies.” Vice President Joe Biden is well known for saying things he seems to think are clever or funny -- while most people fail to share that view. You couldn't help but cringe when he recently said that he and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords are both members of the "cracked head club." Who can forget his classic, "You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent." The White House has been forced to smooth over the rough edges of many of Biden's comments.
Over the summer Biden graduated from the “Gaffe Club” to the political “Fight Club” when he, along with a member of Congress, called members of the tea party "terrorist."
Of course, once this became public, everyone was tripping over themselves to apologize and/or deny the word terrorist was used.
When asked about Biden's use of the word, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney not only denied Biden called tea partiers terrorist (Biden himself has not denied saying it), Carney made excuses for the congressman who used the phrase. Carney said the congressman's comment was "the product of an emotional discussion" and that it did not represent "the sum total of his beliefs." Those are two of the most artful lines of bull I have ever heard.
The assault on the tea party has only gotten worse since then. Another member of Congress, Maxine Waters, recently said, “As far as I’m concerned the tea party can go straight to hell.” Yes, this is the same Maxine Waters who called President George W. Bush a racist. Now you know why talk-show host Larry Elders calls her “Kerosene Maxine.”
Sadly, political debate -- particularly in Washington -- has been reduced to a series of back and forth personal attacks and heated rhetoric. Politicians in D.C. aren’t listening to each other -- and many are not listening to the people they were elected to represent. With the very real challenges faced by our country, we need leaders with real solutions, not guerilla warfare tactics.
Maybe the lawyers I witnessed early in my legal career had it right. Instead of threats and vicious personal attacks, maybe it’s just better to respond to such behavior in a manner commensurate with the level of thought put into such attacks. Perhaps the next time a member of Congress calls someone a “terrorist” or “racist” the best response is “I know who you are -- what am I?” It’s so easy -- even a first-grader could do it.
This is a guest column by Jeff Kottkamp, Florida’s 17th lieutenant governor.