The Decrease of Civility in Public Life

May 31, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- Many people express amazement at the bile President Clinton is subjected to these days. This goes far beyond the political criticism we have been used to in recent years. Talk-show journals record that he is the object of most of the vituperative calls made to right-wing radio hosts. Jerry Falwell distributes a television cassette, along with lurid ads for it, that accuses the president of murder.

A newsletter being distributed is called ''The Clinton Body Count,'' alleging that hit squads killed critics of the president in Alabama. (The Wall Street Journal adds weight to such charges with wild claims on its editorial page.) Floyd Brown, who confected the Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis, surpasses himself in a bulletin called ''Clinton Watch.''

People ask what is it about Mr. Clinton that seems to open him to such onslaughts. They have good reason to ask. He has liabilities he has not effectively countered. But the problem is not solely with him or with his wife.

There has been a noticeable decrease in civility in our public life. It is represented in the level of insult, obscenity and boorishness that people seem to find acceptable, whether it's Roseanne Barr at a televised ballgame, or Howard Stern at a televised New Year's party. This crudity has invaded the political realm by way of shout-and-interrupt shows like that in which Michael Kinsley throws tantrums while John Sununu and Pat Buchanan throw low blows.

Candidates have seen some immediate advantage to be wrested from an appearance on some of these unbuckled shows. George Bush went on the Rush Limbaugh program -- with good results for him. James Fallows has described the way Mr. Limbaugh changed, after that, from a man who scattered insults even in the direction of Republicans to somebody who throws only kisses in that direction now.

Candidate Bill Clinton went on the Don Imus radio show in New York, which is less gamy than Howard Stern's, but still pretty racy for a political candidate. More recently, as president, Mr. Clinton went on MTV, the rock-music channel, hoping to ''reach youth'' and found himself fielding a question on what kind of underwear he prefers.

I think this attempt to reach people through the less civil means of communication has long-term disadvantages for politicians. It is one thing for fanatics to lunge at the chance to spew their hatred over the airwaves when they are talking to a radio host. It is another for presidents, or even for candidates, to legitimize this activity by being the object of such uncivil behavior.

I do not see why anyone would go on shows that live to trade barbs and insults. Even I have refused to do that. Why should a president -- or a senator -- be less dignified than I am trying to be?

I do not romanticize the past. Abraham Lincoln was heckled even during the debates with Stephen Douglas. On the night before he delivered the Gettysburg Address, he talked to a rowdy crowd that had come to Gettysburg for the cemetery's dedication. He said that, as president, he did not like to make extemporary remarks, since ''in my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish thing.'' A heckler cried, ''If you can help it.'' This elicited a laugh from the crowd.

Lincoln gracefully fended off the gibe -- he had developed this skill on the hustings. He said: ''It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all.'' At this, the bystanders laughed with him, not at him.

President Clinton might think he should not be above the risks Lincoln took. But what makes him believe that he possesses the wit always to retain his dignity with laughter, as Lincoln did? Better for us all if the president continues to be above certain forms of verbal roughhousing.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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