When Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters next rises to speak on the House floor, she will be recognized as “The gentle lady from California.” Never mind that she may not be many people’s idea of gentle or a lady. It is the custom of the House that members address each other as ladies and gentlemen.
In the Senate, members are discouraged from even addressing each other at all, but rather are supposed to speak to the presiding officer and mention fellow members in the third person, as in “I disagree with the distinguished senator from (name of state).”
Quaint as they seem in this rough-and-tumble age, there is a reason for such customs. They spring from a recognition that political disagreement can quickly become personal and debate can devolve into barbarous language and even behavior.
This was most famously exemplified in 1856, when anti-slavery Republican Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was nearly beaten to death on the Senate floor by a cane-wielding pro-slavery Democratic Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina.
The country at that time was bitterly divided over the issue of slavery. The parties to that bitter debate spoke of each other in the harshest terms, strikingly similar to the language used today by partisans for and against President Trump.
President Trump himself has certainly contributed heavily to the current poisonous atmosphere, speaking of his opponents in the crudest language and finding no slight too minor to merit a bruising response. But the refusal of his critics to make peace with the reality that he is president has been equally at fault.
We are now at a point where even members of the president’s staff and Cabinet are being run out of restaurants and harassed at their homes. The gentle lady from California is encouraging flash mobs to gather to torment members of the administration whenever they are seen in public.
There is a cycle in all of this. President Trump says or tweets something with characteristic imprecision or exaggeration. His opponents react by interpreting it in the most extreme possible way and reacting accordingly.
Take the president’s complaint over the weekend that we should have a system that bypasses the current cumbersome judicial process for deporting illegal immigrants. This is precisely the way many countries now deal with illegal border crossers, and in some cases how this country does as well.
But cries are immediately heard that the president wants to do away with due process. To that is soon added that now familiar claims that he is an authoritarian, and analogies to the Third Reich that ruled Nazi Germany soon follow. It is all an extreme overreaction and it is not harmless. It inflames passions on both sides, already at a dangerous level in this deeply divided nation.
We need to draw back from this place. One way would be to recognize the wisdom in what’s probably the greatest self-help book ever written: “The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.”
The book, written in 1939, is intended as a guide for problem drinkers, but its famous 12 steps trace a path for anyone. In America today, the book’s elaboration on Step 10 practically cries out to be followed: “Nothing pays off like restraint of pen and tongue.”