The Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. has a peculiar little habit. He discovers the importance of civility in political discourse only when a Democratic president is on the receiving end of heated attacks. That was true when Bill Clinton was president — and it’s true again now that Barack Obama is. “The most surprising and disappointing aspect of our politics,” Dionne writes, “is how little pushback there has been against the vile, extremist rhetoric that has characterized such a large part of the anti-Obama movement.” It’s all just so nasty, isn’t it?
And yet when President Bush was on the receiving end of attacks far worse than what Obama has had to endure — I document a few of the higher-profile examples of calumny here, including former Vice President Al Gore’s charges that Bush “brought deep dishonor to our country and built a durable reputation as the most dishonest President since Richard Nixon” and that Bush had “betrayed this country” and was a “moral coward” — E.J. was nowhere to be found. It would have been nice to hear from the defenders of civility at that time.
Mr. Dionne was, in fact, a fairly harsh and relentless critic of President Bush himself — and if Dionne ever upbraided influential Democrats and those on the Left for their vile, extremist attacks on Bush, it’s news to me. Assuming I’m right, Dionne’s newfound outrage should be ignored. For him, civility seems to be a means to an end, a tool to advance liberalism. Ideology and partisanship determine just how delicate his sensibilities are. After all, if that were not the case, we would have heard from E.J. sometime during the Bush era, when it would have required (to use a Dionne phrase from his most recent column) “an immoderate dose of courage.” We didn’t — and so his lectures on the vital role that comity should play in our civic life are now hard to take seriously.
There is a case to be made for civility in public discourse — but E.J. Dionne is not in the strongest position to make it.