NEH Chair Jim Leach Calls for Civility in Politics

Washington Post pundit E.J. Dionne devoted a November 2009 column to a speech by former congressman Jim Leach:

Leach lost his Iowa seat in the 2006 Democratic tide, but he emerged relieved rather than bitter. He turned to academia, not the lobbying trade favored by so many defeated politicians, and in 2008 engaged in the ultimate act of a maverick (a real one) by becoming a Republican for Obama. The new president in turn appointed Leach chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

It was in this role that Leach offered his critique of extremism in a speech at the National Press Club titled “Bridging Cultures” a few days before Thanksgiving. It deserves far more attention than it has received.

In his speech Leach expressed dismay at the current state of American political rhetoric:

It is particularly difficult not to be concerned about American public manners and the discordant rhetoric of our politics. Words reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify—or cloud—thought and energize action, sometimes bringing out the better angels in our nature, sometimes lesser instincts.

Recent comments on the House floor have gathered much attention, but vastly more rancorous, socially divisive assertions are being made across the land, and few are thinking through the meaning or consequences of the words being used. Public officials are being labeled “fascist or “communist.” And more bizarrely, significant public figures have toyed with hints of history-blind radicalism—the notion of “secession.”

Hmmm … I wonder what “significant public figure” he had in mind?

In one of nearly a dozen of what Leach calls “two minute courses in American governance”, he decries

… politicians and their supporters who use inflammatory rhetoric to divide the country. Candidates may prevail in elections by tearing down rather than uplifting, but if elected, they cannot then unite an angered citizenry. Negativity raises the temperature level of legislatures just as it dispirits the soul of society.

The end of Leach’s speech would make a great Coffee Party recruiting pitch:

I have also determined to commence a 50-state civility tour, not to express judgment on any issues of the day, but simply to try to make clear that coarseness in public manners can jeopardize social cohesion.

Civilization requires civility. Words matter. Just as polarizing attitudes can jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety, healing approaches such as Lincoln’s call for a new direction “with malice toward none” can uplift and help bring society and the world closer together.

Little is more important for the world’s leading democracy in this change-intensive century than establishing an ethos of thoughtfulness and decency of expression in the public square.

If we don’t try to understand and respect others, how can we expect them to respect us, our values and our way of life?

About Hamilton Richards

I retired in 2006 as a Senior Lecturer in Computer Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. These days I volunteer technical support for Citizens' Climate Lobby (Austin chapter), Common Ground for Texans, (, Integrity Texas (, and several friends.
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