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America's Reckless Political Language

photo of Kathy Kiely
January 9, 2011

...And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. ­­--John 1:14

Along with the piping, girlish voice I remember from interviews with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, that line of Scripture has been echoing through my mind on a bright but cold Sunday in Washington, D.C.

Catholic kids like me were taught to read the evangelist’s words as a triumphal reassurance. Now I wonder if they weren’t also an admonition.

 

Those of us who trade in words for a living have always thought they matter. Today, I find myself wishing and hoping and praying they don’t matter that much.

Yet as details emerge about Giffords’s shooting on Saturday at a political event, even if the suspected gunman turns out to have different motives, it’s hard to tamp down fear that the hyperbolic, swaggeringly macho tone of our national discourse isn’t giving license to nut jobs who can’t tell a metaphor from a direct order.

This is a hard thing for me to write because I’ve interviewed Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and countless other political figures with a knack for the spring-loaded political phrase. I am certain they never intend to be taken literally when talking about “taking politicians out” or putting opponents “in the cross-hairs.”

The bullying talk has been contagious. Conservatives have unearthed a President Obama quote from the 2008 campaign. “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun," he said. It was a line appropriated from the 1987 movie The Untouchables, but it seemed a perfect fit for our political discourse.

One reason this kind of talk is so popular, I suspect: people like me. I’m part of this increasingly frenetic media machine that never met a sound bite or a conflict -- real or hopelessly exaggerated -- that we didn’t love.

The truth, which politicians and the people who cover them so often cover up in the interest of pandering to our lesser angels, is that true professional politicians handle their disagreements professionally. Privately, they treat their political opponents with the respect any human being deserves.

That was apparent over the weekend in the outpouring of grief and horror that followed the Giffords shootings. Bachmann’s statement was a cri de coeur for her Democratic colleague, who entered Congress in the same freshman class as the Minnesota Republican. Repeatedly we heard from members of both parties about Giffords’s ability to communicate civilly and work cordially with her polticial opponents.

When the late Ted Kennedy’s diagnosis of terminal cancer was announced, the outpouring of anguish in the Senate was overwhelming and bipartisan. “We all like him,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told me. This tribute came for a politician who, as far as the public was concerned, seemed as polarizing as any we’ve had in modern times. In a 2003 ceremony, George H.W. Bush joked about how invoking Kennedy’s name always raised money for Republicans -- and then proceeded to give the Massachusetts senator an award for public service.

Anyone who has spent time in Washington knows these examples are not anomalies. They are fundamental to the way the city -- and our system of government -- works. Every two years, people from all over the country and the ideological spectrum meet under the Capitol dome to fuss and fight but ultimately to get to know each other and each other’s problems. Urban dwellers learn about farmers’ challenges. Gay people meet evangelicals. And, in one case I witnessed personally, a white, conservative Baptist Republican became the godfather to the kid of a black, left-wing Democrat.

To me, that is the magic of the American system of government and the reason it has endured. We have, through our elected representatives, figured out how to get along.

But in an era when compromise is treated as betrayal, when cable television flame-throwers are given more air time than elected officials, and when tweets get more attention than a debate on the floor of Congress, I wonder how long that will last.

Maybe it’s time to tell the American people the truth about Washington: It’s filled with flawed but engaging human beings who, for the most part, want the same thing: a better future for their country and their kids and whose only disagreement is about how to get there.

Words do matter. They can take on a life of their own in some minds, so maybe we need to be more careful with our metaphors.       

We can’t know what motivated Giffords’s attacker. But even if there’s just an outside chance that it was the way we talk about each other, isn’t it worth trying to clean up our act?

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