Service of Civility II: BookTV Panel & Some Surprise Assessments

April 2nd, 2018

Categories: Civility, Fear, Hope



A day after I heard about Laura Ingraham’s bullying one of the Parkland student survivor/spokespeople, hitting him below the belt on a very touchy subject –taunting him about four college rejections—I saw a fitting panel on BookTV covering the topic of why civility is important. With Geoffrey Cowan as moderator—USC Annenberg Family Chair in Communication Leadership—panelists were Jon Meacham, author, presidential historian and executive editor at Random House; Tim Miller, Definers Public Affairs partner and Amie Parnes, reporter and co-author of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.”

Miller started. He’d been Jeb Bush’s 2016 communications director. While calling out the current president’s attacks on his then boss’s wife, he asked where do we draw the lines while pointing out that DT wasn’t the first in politics to step over some. He didn’t offer examples of but Meacham did when it was his turn to speak. He reminded us that one reason George Washington didn’t serve a third term was because he didn’t care for the incivility in politics and the attacks on him.

Meacham observed that civility is when “things are going my way;” that currently we are in a state of “strife and nature” and that in December, according to reporting in The New York Times, the current president told his transition staff to think of each day he is president as a TV show in which “I vanquish my enemies.” Meacham added that discord and disagreement are the oxygen of democracy. “We’re in the political equivalent of climate change: Some days hot, some cold.”

Jon Meacham Photo:

The president sets the political tone and those who reached out with hope have been the most successful, said Meacham. As examples he called out Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklyn D. Roosevelt and more recently, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan whom he called the architect of optimism. The Reagan anecdote he shared was the President’s description of a kid who finds a pile of manure in the living room and says, “There must be a pony in there somewhere.” The opposite were presidents who ran on a fist clenched in fear. This one thrives on a rhetoric of fear.

Parnes spoke of being an object of personal attack about her Hillary Clinton book and earlier when she was a journalist, with people threatening her and even attacking what she looks like. She observed that social media has made it worse. In this regard, Meacham said he’d told his kids, ages 15, 13 and nine, “don’t write on a computer what you wouldn’t say to a person’s face.” He added that keyboards have been much quieter in his house as a result. Miller blames social media less than tribalism. The common culture of the 50s and 60s was for white people, he said. Cowan chimed in that politics is determined by zip code these days.

Meacham observed that the press is far less ideologically driven than people think. “Give us a fight and that’s ideal.” The president takes advantage of this.


Back to Ingraham, who reminded me of a now well-regarded New York Times columnist who wrote a nasty piece in that paper’s Magazine section about Chelsea Clinton, all of 11, whom he called unattractive and awkward among other things. Bullying is dreadful dished out by anyone but worse when it’s adult vs. child. The Parkland student wasn’t passive—he reached out to Ingram’s advertisers and more than a dozen of them have dropped her show at this writing.

Meacham’s “civility is when things are going my way” may answer why so many feel we are in a period of incivility on steroids, sensed in politics since the 18th century.  Where do you stand?


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6 Responses to “Service of Civility II: BookTV Panel & Some Surprise Assessments”

  1. Lucrezia Said:

    It’s to be hoped that individuals set their own tone. Following the example of any politician, from dog catcher on up has become a sad joke, and it’s a good thing. It’s time we learn to stand on our own two feet. It’s also the way to make the country “great again.”

  2. Protius Said:

    As I read and reread this over the past several days, I have kept thinking of David Fischer’s landmark 1991 “Albion’s Seed,” the essence of which is that patterns of behavior in migrant populations mimicking those of the root source culture of the migration, will often linger for centuries after the migration has concluded. Hence, what we are seeing now in the supposed Trump takeover of the Republican Party — actually big-business/big-money’s power grab, has origins which can be traced to the brutal suppression of the Scots/Irish during the 18th century by the English.

    I was educated in New England schools during the 1950s in the anglophile traditions of “fair play,’’ “the rule of law,” “win and then cheer for the losers,” which are a throwback to its Puritan, and Virginia’s Cavalier origins. (Of course, this worked just fine for those born into the right wombs.) I suppose I was a touch idealistic but I went to work for the government. Power was still essentially in the hands of a loose assortment of men like me or their allies, and the government functioned sometimes well, sometimes not, but predictably and politely at least to me.

    Then came the election of 1960, power moved rapidly, firmly and irretrievably from the “Eastern Establishment” to the “Military Industrial Complex” about which President Eisenhower so gravely warned us. I moved, partly by accident, partly by merit to a plumb job. (My successor in the job later served thirty years in the U.S. Senate.) I saw enough on day one on to realize that the “New Frontier” was not “the playing fields of Eaton,” resigned two months later, and left Washington permanently.

    That experience leaves me both unsurprised by the degree of corruption of the Trump government and dubious that we will soon see a return to civility in either our government’s relations with the public or our own with each other.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:


    We hear talk of draining the swamp in Washington, in Albany and elsewhere and talk is all that happens. “Mister Smith Goes to Washington” with Jimmy Stewart doesn’t exist. A key to the current situation is that DT knows what catches the eye of media. He plays with them as he would a kitten swatting at a feather on a stick and they love it. Meacham hit on it when he said that the press is far less ideologically driven than people think. “Give us a fight and that’s ideal.” The president takes advantage of this and they fall for it hourly.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I am reading Sally Bedell Smith’s book “Grace and Power–The Private World of the Kennedy White House.” Politics aside, I was struck by the amount of research that went into every move; the fact that if the right person for the job was a Republican, that’s the person who was offered the cabinet job. Perfect? Far from it. Was everyone a gentleman or gentle woman? Of course not. But at least there was an attempt by the President to come to a decision with all information available and with the smartest minds making recommendations. In the end, Kennedy chose the path and he often didn’t agree with the pundits but at least he listened to them and understood what they had to say. Today I feel decisions at the highest levels are made by shooting at a dart board or spinning a roulette wheel. This method gives me the creeps.

  5. Protius Said:

    I beg your pardon, but Ms. Smith may have struck you “with the amount of research that went into every move [by the Kennedy White House],” but I assure you that the conclusions to be attained were predetermined and lying was almost as “de rigeur” as it is today. The quality of the research was better only because it was more persuasive.

    Remember, I was there.

  6. Martha Takayama Said:

    The most striking element of this post is that Laura Ingraham, a twisted, ignorant hatemonger, is treated as a journalist, and even worse, as a successful entertainer. The 2 functions should be separate!

    Like our President and those surrounding him she manages to overturn any professional guidelines as well as any rules for socially acceptable behavior. It is most unfortunate that she has been permitted to flourish by purveying disruption and hate. Hopefully at some point she will accept the consequences that should be due her.

    As for political gossip, faux pas and even inappropriate behavior, I think that we were all better off knowing less of the private details and personal quirks of those in politics and public life in so far as they did not affect their judgment to fulfill their obligations. We cannot pretend a “need to know” things of significance limited to our leaders personal lives. And as always, discretion and polite behavior spare us from much unnecessary discomfort or missteps. The kind of missteps and outrageous statements that are part of our current daily pretend news coverage from our faux President seem to only wreak havoc.

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