U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Republican congresswoman from Colorado, has been generating national headlines not because of what she has accomplished, but because of the malicious invective she apparently loves to hurl.
Apparently believing her constituents have an unquenchable thirst for empty stunts and crude Islamophobic nastiness, Boebert has repeatedly made U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar into a punching bag. Boebert has implied more than once that Omar, a Minnesota Democrat and a Muslim, is a terrorist-in-waiting, and has called her a member of the “jihad squad.” This sort of ugly rhetoric debases our politics and chips away at our standing in the world.
What a contrast to watch a speech that the late U.S. Sen. Robert Dole delivered in the Senate on June 11, 1996, as he resigned from that body in the midst of a losing presidential campaign. A Republican stalwart, Dole was known as a tough, and sometimes cutting, political operator. But the speech was marked by a graciousness and eloquence that seems sadly lacking nowadays on Capitol Hill specifically and across the American political landscape generally.
The speech was replayed on C-SPAN last Sunday night, hours after it was announced that Dole had died at age 98. Toward the beginning of his lengthy farewell, Dole recognized friends, family, staffers, Kansas voters who put him in office and colleagues. He then turned his attention to journalists. No, he did not assert that they were “enemies of the people,” or part of some dark conspiracy to destroy the country.
“I don’t want my friends in the press gallery to fall out of their seats in shock, but let me add, in acknowledging those who have worked here in this building, I also salute you,” he said.
He continued, “And I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t always agree with everything you said or wrote, but I know that what you do off this floor is as vital to American democracy as anything we do on it, and we have to keep that in mind.”
In an even more striking contrast to the political environment we find ourselves in a quarter-century later, Dole praised political opponents and acknowledged friendships he had maintained with several of them. You can bet your last dollar that Dole did not vote for Hubert Humphrey when the onetime vice-president and U.S. senator from Minnesota was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1968, but he nevertheless called Humphrey “my friend.”
“Nobody ever understood how Bob Dole and Hubert Humphrey could be such good friends,” Dole explained. “We didn’t have a problem at all.”
And you can make another bet that when the 1972 presidential election came around, Dole did not vote for Democratic nominee George McGovern. The South Dakota senator lost Kansas by 38 points to Richard Nixon and lost the country as a whole in a landslide. Yet, here is what Dole had to say about McGovern: “I remember working with Sen. McGovern, and that crops up now and then in conservative articles, saying that I can’t be a conservative because I know George McGovern. I think George McGovern is a gentleman and has always been a gentleman.”
There are many reasons our politics are nowhere close to being as civil as they were when Dole was in the Senate, from the decline of a truly “mass” media to the ideological sorting that has occurred in both parties. Whatever the causes, we need to return to a time when our politics were marked by the kind of comity that Dole and his colleagues practiced. The health of our democracy depends on it.