Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012 | 6:39 p.m.
Addressing the Republican National Convention, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie bemoaned the lack of civility and cooperation in American politics. "We are demanding that our leaders stop tearing each other down, and work together to take action on the big things facing America," Christie said.
Then he proceeded to tear Barack Obama down. The president, Christie said, is not a leader but part of a movement that preys on vulnerabilities, frightens with misinformation, has "failed America" and wants the American people to "live the lie."
Christie wasn't alone. After speakers criticized everything from Obama's healthcare initiatives to Vice President Joe Biden's golf game, Democratic operatives were howling as if political discourse had hit some kind of historical low. But the GOP hardly holds the monopoly on divisive rhetoric.
"What have they said about (GOP nominee Mitt) Romney? Killed a woman?" says Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist, referring to a pro-Obama Super PAC ad featuring a steelworker laid off by a company shut down by Romney's firm, Bain Capital. The man's wife died of cancer after they lost his health insurance.
"The campaign that Obama has put on so far is relentlessly negative," Black says. "It's all attack, attack, attack."
And so it goes: In divisiveness, we are united.
The fundamental narrative of American politics in recent years contains two powerful threads: First, demand a better discourse among the people who run the country. Second, do everything you can to make sure that better discourse doesn't take root. These days, though, it seems as if the calls for civility and the acts of incivility show up in the same speech, if not the same paragraph.
Amplified nationally, this becomes more obvious. But is it new? Hardly. The political dig, sometimes disguised as a compliment, goes back to ancient Rome and Marc Anthony — or at least Elizabethan England, when Shakespeare put words in Anthony's mouth, giving him a soliloquy in his eulogy of Caesar. "Brutus says he was ambitious," Anthony orates. "And Brutus is an honorable man." The sarcasm drips.
Over and over, today's politicians say they want a more civil discourse. Then they deploy vitriol. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who briefly ran for the GOP nomination in 2000, got on stage Tuesday and did everything but call Biden a liar.
"Folks, let me tell you this — Joe Biden disputes a lot of those facts," he said after listing a number of Romney's accomplishments as head of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and governor of Massachusetts. "But Joe Biden told me that he was a good golfer, and I've played golf with Joe Biden. I can tell you that's not true, as well as all of the other things that he says."
Obama campaign Senior Strategist David Axelrod said people who tuned in to hear how Mitt Romney was going to improve their lot got "a relentless cavalcade of insults and ideology, anger in place of answers, from a party more bent on tearing down the President than lifting up our country." And Obama senior adviser Robert Gibbs, on MSNBC, characterized the night as "a very angry convention" and "full of insults."
Black's response: "Let's get serious here."
"They've always done that," he said. "Conventions always beat up the other side. They were doing that before there WERE conventions. Gosh! Stop the presses."
When former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, no slouch when it comes to sharp elbows, heard Gibbs' comments Wednesday morning, he wondered whether they'd attended the same convention.
"If you listened to last night's speeches, they were anything but angry," the former GOP presidential hopeful said. "Mrs. Romney, I think, gave a beautiful speech. It was about her husband; it was not focused on President Obama. And Christie's getting criticized for not focusing on President Obama enough! "
In the old days, the conventions were largely internecine slugfests, the nominee being the one who came out with the fewest lumps. Today, delegates already know going in who the victors are, and so are able to devote more time to laying into the other side.
Aboard Air Force One Wednesday, Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the president didn't even bother watching the GOP speeches. She called Romney and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan the "most unpopular presidential nominee and vice presidential nominee in modern history."
The quest for civility in politics is a largely quixotic one. While still recovering from two gunshot wounds suffered in the January 2011 assassination attempt on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, aide Ron Barber launched The Fund For Civility, Respect and Understanding. This spring, when Barber announced he would seek the Arizona Democrat's seat, a consultant declared that it would be "a civil campaign."
Washington Post writer Felicia Sonmez wonders if that's even possible.
"Can a candidate in 2012 run a campaign based on civility?" she blogged. "And what does a pledge to stay civil matter, in the end, if outside groups and party committees will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars launching negative attacks on the candidates' behalf, anyway?"
Earlier this month, comedian Judah Friedlander — best known for his role as hirsute writer Frank Rossitano on NBC's "30 Rock" — announced his candidacy for president. In a mock news conference, Friedlander said he was fed up with Democrats AND Republicans.
"We're the Party Party," said the self-anointed "World Champion" in the polyester baseball cap. "Enough of people hating each other. Enough of red states and blue states. Last time I checked, this country was red, white AND blue."
Black and blue is more like it. Though, as we close, it's worth putting out this footnote: Barber, the civility candidate in Arizona, won his primary Tuesday.