(RNS) This week in Washington, George W. Bush seized anopportunity to announce his commitment to civility in government. If hisgala audience of Republican Party donors expected a bloodthirsty battlecry, it heard instead a gentlemanly promise. "It is time to clean up thetoxic environment in Washington, D.C.," Bush said. "I will restorerespect and civility to our national politics."Bravo! But why wait to bring civility to the White House? Right now,Gov. Bush and Vice President Al Gore have a national stage upon which todemonstrate its virtues.Back before the caucuses and primaries, observers predicted one ofthe most civil campaigns in recent history. Both Bush and Gore signed acivility pledge in December, seemingly without a second thought. But asthe primaries heated up and votes became precious, bitterness replacedcivility. Attacks by surrogate, misrepresentation of facts, innuendo byphone pollsters: the dirty tricks went on parade.How do voters feel about negative campaigning? Polls show twodiametrically opposite reactions. People don't like it, but they respondto it. And while negativity may excite some voters, the polls don't showhow many others are driven away by it.Of course, no one looks away from a food fight, at first. But in thefray, we search for more than a winner. We seek a leader who is able tokeep a cool head in the midst of controversy. Conflict can breed adangerous dynamic in which adversaries begin to reflect the worst valuesof others in the ring. They stoop to conquer. This is not what we wantin a leader. And if the victory in November is ruthless anddishonorable, the nation pays a price.
Negativity in campaigns doesn't necessarily end with Election Day.Come January, politicians confronted with divided communities can'timmediately go to work with the business of government. They have toheal divisions in order to get the citizenry behind an agenda. In recentelections, those fissures have been so deep that one of the firstresponses of the losing segment of the electorate is to find anaggressive way of investigating the winner.Political campaigns function as major arteries to the heart of our democracy. They contribute to a national sense of either health orsystemic disease. When campaigns, however rigorous and colorful, arecivil, they can enlighten voters and even inspire greater politicalinvolvement. But take away civility, and political campaigns can fomentprejudice, disrupt communities and spew poison into the democraticprocess.Candidates, one suspects, don't like negative campaigning. They knowthat their names will be attached to the mudslinging for posterity. Onecan imagine a candidate's discomfort in the campaign war room asadvisers, sensing a threat, push to go negative.The story of Lee Atwater is instructive. As a Republican campaignstrategist for George Bush Sr., Atwater engineered the racist "WillieHorton" ads that helped defeat Michael Dukakis in 1988. In the yearbefore Atwater's sadly premature death from brain cancer, he spent a lotof precious time apologizing for that eruption of negative campaigning.It is April now in an election year. The primaries have beendecisive, the presidential campaign is quiet, and our presumptivenominees have retired for a few weeks of fund raising and talk. It is anice moment to declare beneficent intentions.But it's not enough to simply affirm civility as a principle forgood times. Civility needs to drive all discussions, however heated, ofissues and records right up to the eve of Election Day.The rewards for a higher standard in campaigning are many:candidates with clearly articulated positions, an informed electorateand a higher turnout at the polls. And for the victor, civility maydeliver a true mandate to govern, which is the greatest plum of all.
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