Thirty two years ago, President Ronald Reagan was interrupted between sentences while giving a speech in Oregon. A shout from the crowd stunned the nation:
“Liar, liar, pants on fire.”
At the time, an outburst of this nature was uncommon and frowned upon.
Reagan’s spokesman, James Lake, underscored the point: “The American people don't like bad manners — rude, disorderly bad manners."
U.S. political history has recorded many bitter, hard-hitting presidential campaigns but few have reached the depths of the 2016 contest. The expectations of our politics today — and our politicians — have changed significantly.
There are many ways to characterize this year’s presidential campaign — “polite” or “respectful” don’t come to mind.
And it seems that voters are growing weary of the bad manners, the acrimony. A Gallup poll released in July found that one in four Americans have an unfavorable opinion of both Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMedia giants side with Bannon on request to release Jan. 6 documents Cheney warns of consequences for Trump in dealings with Jan. 6 committee Jan. 6 panel recommends contempt charges for Trump DOJ official MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBudowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE. But perhaps more indicative of national disgust was the contrasting statistic:
Only 4% held positive images of both candidates.
Lack of civility on the campaign trail has implications — for individuals and for the nation as a whole.
The 2016 campaign is certainly some distance from the ideal set forth by our Founders, who wrote in The Federalist Papers a presidential aspirant needs “a different kind of merit to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of president of the United States."
Neither candidate in 2016 seems anywhere close to earning the esteem and confidence of the whole union.
Presidential campaigns are excruciating, and have become more so over the last several cycles. But we have seen instances of genuine leadership during presidential campaigns — perhaps none more impressive than Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senators appalled by 'ridiculous' House infighting MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Chris Christie battle over Fox News Trump's attacks on McConnell seen as prelude to 2024 White House bid MORE (R-AZ) who memorably responded to an audience member’s over-the-top attack on Democrat Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThose on the front lines of climate change should be empowered to be central to its solution The Memo: Trump's justices look set to restrict abortion Minorities and women are leading the red wave MORE by saying, “He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about.”
McCain wanted to win, but he maintained his sense of civil discourse, refusing to take the easy route.
There is a marked distinction between McCain’s determination to maintain an honorable level of civility and respect in his campaign and this presidential campaign eight years later.
The divisive rhetoric in this campaign is so pervasive that, laying ground rules for the first-ever Commander in Chief Forum, anchor Matt Lauer was compelled to ask both presidential candidates to refrain from attacking the other during their time on stage.
It begs the question: If the presidential candidates do not respect the representative of the other party – resorting to name calling, insinuations and accusations — can they possibly respect the citizens that voted each candidate as nominee?
The Founding Fathers had a vision for the nation: that the president lead the country as a whole, as a unit, as one. They created the Congress to check the role of the president: two bodies composed of representatives of each state to represent the interests of each state – in other words, representatives attuned to the more focused, granular issues of the constituencies. The president, on the other hand, serves as the unifier, the chief executive of our nation, not just a single party.
But it is nearly impossible for a candidate to govern as a unifier if they campaign as a divider.
For the next president to unite the nation would demand a level of respect that we are simply not seeing on the campaign trail today. Instead of demanding civility, our aspiring leaders are feeding the anger and frustration of citizens to the detriment of us all.
It is essential for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to elevate the tone of this debate over these next few months before the damage is irreversible, and before our nation is so bitterly divided that it cannot be reunited.
Mack McLarty is the chairman of McLarty Associates, and serves as a vice-chair of No Labels. He served as White House chief of staff during President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMaxwell accuser testifies the British socialite was present when Epstein abuse occurred Epstein pilot testifies Maxwell was 'number two' in operation Federal judge changes his mind about stepping down, eliminating vacancy for Biden to fill MORE's administration.
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