(The following is this week's column for the Newton County News and KY3/KSPR.)
One of the things I enjoyed most about my days as a newspaper editor was the time I spent with working with high school and college-age reporters. I always believed they should not be limited to writing stories about school events. Journalism was an opportunity for them to develop an appreciation for our system and how it works.
In 1987, I hired a Golden City High School junior named Peggy Brinkhoff to work at the Lamar Democrat and for her first assignment, I sent her to the Horton Building in Lamar to cover a town hall meeting with Sen. John Danforth.
To help her overcome her nervousness and to make sure she got off on the right foot, I grabbed a camera and accompanied Peggy. Those who attended that town hall meeting will never forget it. It started with a series of innocuous questions and then a young farmer from nearby Iantha, a recent graduate of Liberal High School, stood to ask questions and from that point on civility went out the window.
For most people in that room, it was their first introduction to future State Representative Bubs Hohulin. For me, it was everything that public discourse should not be.
Despite the fact that I write on a regular basis about politicians who are accepting gifts from lobbyists or who are casting votes that will be appreciated by their largest contributors, I have always had a healthy respect for people who have the courage to put themselves on the ballot.
I am proud to live in a country in which every citizen has the right to question elected officials, but those who question them should use courtesy when doing so and that was not what Peggy Brinkhoff saw in her first exposure to American politics.
Since that time, I have reassessed what I saw that night in Lamar. I still do not appreciate the kind of disrespect that Bubs Hohulin showed John Danforth, a man with a long, distinguished record of public service, but his rudeness was tame compared to what serves as political discourse in 2011.
Last year, we watched as well organized groups calling themselves average citizens disrupted town hall meetings across the United States, booing elected officials and acting more like they were in the audience of a professional wrestling match than at an important function of American politics. Since when is it a crime to state an opinion and then to listen respectfully when an elected official states his or her opinion?
To link the senseless murders and the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to any political movement, whether it be the Tea Party movement of the right or the MoveOn.org movement of the left, is wrong and the quick cry to cast blame for the acts of a deeply troubled and violent young man was more of the kneejerk type response that has replaced reflective thinking in today’s society.
I worry about the future leadership of this country. Politics has always been something of a masochistic undertaking. Even those who win elections by so-called “landslide” totals, still have 30 to 40 percent of the electorate disagreeing with them, sometimes vehemently, sometimes because of the political party with which they have aligned themselves, or sometimes because they don’t see eye-to-eye with a voter on just one issue.
Add to that, the rude, belligerent behavior of those who have attended recent town hall meetings and the violence that struck Saturday in Tucson and I have to wonder if we will ever again see our best and our brightest opt for careers in public service.
We live in a society where simple conversation has been replaced by competitions to see who can shout the loudest. We live in a world where people see everything in black and white. If you are a Democrat, you have to believe that Republicans are all heartless Babbitts who have sold their souls to big business. If you are a Republican, you have to believe that all Democrats have their hands out and are trying to have government run your life and sneak into your bedroom and take away your guns.
Anyone who seeks a middle ground is immediately termed a sellout and soon is watching the game from the sidelines.
For America to move forward, we need to appreciate those who are willing to enter public service. It does not mean we shouldn’t criticize them when they make mistakes, or vote against them if we are not pleased with their job performance, and we have every right to let them know if we disagree with them on the issues.
But isn’t it time we toned down the rhetoric and restored civility to a country that is in desperate need of it? Isn’t it time we steered control of our political discourse away from children who cry socialism or fascism if every single little thing does not go their way.
Isn’t it time we let the adults grab the reins?