A Noisome, Squat, and Nameless Animal (with Halitosis)

As I watch the news, listen to the radio, and surf the web, I am continually reminded from the Right and Left that we are living in an era of unprecedented incivility in American politics. Never, we are told, have character assassination, demagoguery, and outright disrespect for high office been at higher levels in our nation. And as each side blames the other for the breech, the chasm continues to widen. Indeed, recent polls suggest that upward to 70% of Americans feel that incivility in politics is on a tremendous rise. While this may be true, is it at an all-time high? 

Political contemptuousness is an ancient practice. In our history, we’ve had some that were better at it than others. Consider Lloyd Benson’s fantastically well-timed barb at Dan Quayle’s attempt to defend his inexperience with the shield of JFK. “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” Benson said. Classy. Or, how about this one from President Reagan when presented with concerns about his age during the campaign for his second term: 

“I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”[1]

Almost makes you wish for the good ole days of civil politics, doesn’t it? When you look back at these elder statesmen and how they attacked their opponents with well-timed comments and humor, today’s grenades just seem grossly immature by comparison. Consider, for instance, Rudy Giuliani’s measure of Vice President Joe Biden:

“I mean, there’s a real fear if — God forbid — he ever had to be entrusted with the presidency, whether he really has the mental capacity to handle it. …This guy just isn’t bright, he’s never been bright, he isn’t bright.” [2]

That’s a bit blunt, to say the least, and could be seen as simply disrespectful to the office of Vice President. But the Right isn’t alone in hurling invective.

“…as far as I’m concerned, the Tea Party can go straight to hell.” Rep. Maxine Waters (D.-Cal.)[3]

So, the parties aren’t playing nice. Is anyone truly surprised? What surprises me is that anyone thinks it’s new or the worst it’s ever been. Considering that our country was birthed through a revolution and survived a harrowing civil war, I don’t know how anyone with a knowledge of history could believe that we have reached the heights of incivility. When Aaron Burr lost the gubernatorial election in New York, due in no small part to Alexander Hamilton’s support of his opponent, and later heard that Hamilton had made insulting remarks about him, Burr challenged him to a duel. Controversy remains as to whether Hamilton threw away his shot, but the fact remains that Burr didn’t. Hamilton died of the gunshot shot wound the day after the duel. We haven’t seen a debate like that in a while.

On May 19, 1856 Senator Charles Sumner, an abolitionist Republican, gave a speech entitled “Crime Against Kansas.” In it, he made pointed attacks against two Democratic senators, Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Of Douglas, he said that the man couldn’t switch out his tongue to avoid having bad breath. He then called him a “noisome beast, squat, and nameless animal…not a proper model for an American senator.”[4] He compared Douglas and Butler to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (I leave it to you to figure out who was who) on a fantastically dim-witted quest to save slavery.[5] And as insulting as all that was, it wasn’t even his coup de grace. This came when he referred to Butler’s love of slavery in romantically emotive terms.

“The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage.  Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him, — though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight:  I mean the harlot Slavery.”[6]

Three days later, Representative Preston Brooks, a relative of Butler’s, came into the senate chambers for his own special joint session. Finding Sumner seated at his desk, he beat him senseless with his cane until the man lay bleeding on the floor. As a result of the incident, both became the darlings of their respective parties. We haven’t seen political discourse like that in a while.

To say that it isn’t as bad as it has been in the past isn’t to say that it’s good. As a nation, we are more polarized along party lines than we have been since Reconstruction.[7] What this means is that Congress is having the hardest time agreeing on how to spend our money since shortly after the Civil War. I for one don’t consider that in itself to be a bad thing. But should the war of words escalate into something more overtly violent, we should all stand guard. As Americans, we live in an enchanted bubble of history marked by this extraordinary experiment in government. But it is more fragile than most of care to consider or believe.

[1]http://www.nationalmemo.com/the-6-greatest-political-insults-of-all-time/4/, accessed 1/26/14.
[2] ibid
[3]http://www.humanevents.com/2011/09/17/top-10-examples-of-liberal-incivility/, accessed 1/26/14.
[4]http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Caning_of_Senator_Charles_Sumner.htm, accessed 1/26/14.
[5] Yes, dear reader, it’s true. Republicans were for civil rights long before it was cool and back when the stakes were much higher and actually had people chained to them.
[6]http://www.sewanee.edu/faculty/willis/Civil_War/documents/Crime.html, accessed 1/26/14.
[7]http://polarizedamerica.com/polarizedamerica.asp, accessed 1/27/14.


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