Political civility: It was really nice while it lasted

I’m thinking these days about political civility. It used to exist.

We lost a couple of political gentlemen, both career military men, in the last few days. They were exemplars of the way it used to be.

I drove to Lamoni on Thursday of last week to attend the funeral visitation for former U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell, Democrat, of that community. A longtime friend, Leonard was one of the most courtly and gracious men I’ve ever known.

An example of what made him tick: 

In 1996, longtime Republican leader Mike Mahaffey, of Montezuma (son of former East Greene superintendent M. Russell Mahaffey), and Boswell faced off in the Iowa Third Congressional District race. It was an open seat, and highly desired by both political parties.

In something unheard of today, and rare back then, Boswell and Mahaffey agreed not to run negative ads against each other. Their respective national parties tried to talk them out of such civility, but they both stuck to their pledges. 

Boswell won by less than two percentage points.

Mahaffey, also a longtime friend, attended last Thursday’s visitation to pay his respects, and I had a good conversation with him.

Such civility apparently has a shelf life. 

In the 2010 election, when Republican Brad Zaun challenged Boswell for the congressional seat, the election turned negative rather quickly. I don’t think Zaun offered to eschew negative ads before he started campaigning, and Boswell didn’t do so unilaterally.

Boswell’s reputation for legislative across-the-aisle cooperation and constituent assistance was well known, both during his congressional career and prior to that in the Iowa Legislature.

The other politician in the news these days who strove for civility is, of course, the late Sen. John McCain, Republican, of Arizona. 

McCain, a loyal party member, nevertheless showed often that he put country above politics, despite a well-known temper.

During his 2008 campaign for president, a woman at a town meeting started to berate Democratic candidate Barack Obama, referring to him as an Arab and in derogatory terms. McCain cut her off, praised Obama as a fine family man and patriot, and endured the resulting boos from the highly partisan crowd for defending his opponent.

Back in 1999, McCain was one of the many Republicans who were testing waters for a presidential run. 

One of Sen. Chuck Grassley’s top aides was attending the Iowa Newspaper Association’s annual convention, and I told him I was impressed with McCain’s positions on several issues. I wanted to know what Grassley thought of him.

The aide explained to me that because McCain opposed subsidies for ethanol, Grassley was not one of his supporters. But he went on to describe McCain’s independence in the Senate Republican caucus. It was hard to bring McCain into line.

At that time, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi was Senate Republican leader. Grassley’s aide said something like this: “Trent Lott tries cajoling McCain, threatening him, offering him stuff Arizona wanted, giving him the cold shoulder, and other tactics. But when you’ve spent five years in the Hanoi Hilton, Trent Lott isn’t very scary.”

McCain generally tried to work with Democrats as well as Republicans to pass legislation he considered to be good for the country. One of his last votes, before his brain cancer forced him home to Arizona last December, was against the Senate Republicans’ attempt to deep-six Obamacare, a vote that defeated his party leaders’ top goal. 

President Trump heaped scorn on him for that vote, and did not join the chorus of praise for McCain in his last days. The McCain family some time ago made it known that Trump would not be welcome at McCain’s funeral service.

I had a personal example of incivility this last week as well. I received a push-poll telephone call.

A push-poll is not a true political poll. Instead, it’s a slimy propaganda effort to try to mislead voters.

This call came from a woman who identified herself as calling for the “International Research Foundation,” or something like that. 

The questions started out innocently enough, with a dozen or so asking my opinions about various candidates and issues.

But then the caller said she was going to read me some statements about a particular candidate or candidates. She wanted to know if my view of the candidate(s) would change as a result of the statement.

The first one went something like this: “If you knew that (Candidate X) was extremely hostile to private education and wanted to shut down private schools, would it make you more likely or less likely to vote for him?”

I happen to know Candidate X, and I know he does not have that view. 

The question technically doesn’t say he thinks that way, but it’s an attempt to put that opinion in the voter’s mind.

I shut her off, said that I wasn’t going to answer any push-poll questions, and hung up.

Unbelievably, she called back the next day to ask if we could finish the interview. I told her no, for the same reason, and hung up again.

She hasn’t called back again, but I’m not betting she won’t.

Push-polls are not the sole province of either party or of any one PAC or interest group. They’re truly sleazy, and I hope they all backfire.

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