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Greg Bell: What happened to a 'kinder, gentler' nation?

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in her office at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, April 10, 2019.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in her office at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, April 10, 2019.
J. Scott Applewhite, AP

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, both spoke at the convention I attended in Washington, D.C., last week. After hearing them, my colleague said to me, “They were both so nasty that I don’t want anything to do with either of them.” I agreed.

Their bile and vitriol toward the opposing party was so distasteful as to be unbecoming of two of the three most powerful leaders of our country. The other leader is President Donald Trump. His public invective and animosity toward his enemies are far worse, nearly unrivaled in recent memory. How dispiriting to have our leaders, those at the pinnacle of our republic, talk about each other in such scornful, dismissive and disrespectful terms. They have lowered themselves from ardent opponents to outright enemies. It’s a given that they should disagree on political matters. But they should nonetheless — especially in our divided government — be looking for the best for our country and, when possible, cooperating rather than maligning and stymying one another.

This threesome are all septuagenarians, a time when life’s lessons tend to have mellowed people, when experience has usually smoothed the rough edges. At their age, the mind ought to turn to one’s legacy, not so much professional but personal: Have we loved and raised a family? Have we served our neighbors and our community? Have we made friends and loved those friends? Have we helped our fellow man along the way, made life easier for someone needing our help? Do our children and grandchildren know we love them and look forward to hearing from us? Have we risen above political, religious and cultural differences?

Nope. Not these guys. They shout insults at each other over Twitter and to friendly talking heads; they sound more like rival gang leaders than worthy opponents in the hallowed halls of government. Alas, it unsettles the soul.

History gives us some little comfort. While serving as secretary of state under Washington, Thomas Jefferson leaked cabinet secrets to Philip Freneau and his newspaper. Jefferson employed Freneau in the State Department in a job with few duties thus allowing him to publish vilifying attacks on Washington, Adams and especially Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton gave as good as he got in the opposing Federalist newspaper. Their constant bickering deeply troubled Washington as his proteges split the country into bitter partisan rivalry.

Hamilton later engaged in an even more acrimonious interchange with then-Vice President Aaron Burr, who shot and killed Hamilton in a duel.

In 1856, Sen. Charles Sumner harshly condemned slavery in a Senate speech, including a vicious tirade against Sen. Alexander Butler of South Carolina. Butler’s relative, House member Preston Brooks, strode onto the Senate floor two days later to avenge the offense to Butler and to the South and beat Sumner viciously and repeatedly over the head with a cane, almost killing him and rendering him an invalid for years. Ultimately, failure to resolve the slavery question led to the Civil War in which three-quarters of a million people lost their lives and the South was economically ruined.

Viewed against the violence, death and destruction of the Civil War in which the very Union was nearly sundered, current sniping by Republicans against Democrats and vice versa seems tame. At least, these examples show that we can — although at great cost — recover from serious partisan ugliness and even fratricidal war.

Nonetheless, the ill will, the unwillingness to cooperate and to negotiate in good faith, the vilification of one’s political opponents we hear regularly coming out of Washington will bear rotten fruit. This enmity inhibits the political processes we rely on to deal with our country’s domestic and foreign affairs. Thus engaged in petty warfare, how can our Congress and President deal with the pressing issues before us like Russia’s and China’s global adventurism, trade and tariffs, the immigration imbroglio, the astronomic federal deficit and national debt and aging infrastructure? What fills the news instead? Investigations, releasing the President’s tax returns, and similar controversies, which while important to resolve, do nothing to address the looming issues before us.

Can it be but 30 years since a more gentlemanly president, George H.W. Bush, pledged us to be a “kinder, gentler” nation?