Much has been written about the lack of civility in our politics, even though most of the time writers don’t precisely define what constitutes uncivil conversation.
In my view, our political discourse goes over the line when a participant attacks the character of a person, rather than the content of what the person is saying.
So that’s my wish for the political New Year — end the Argumentum Ad Hominem.
In recent months, Garrison Keillor has been a prime offender. In his nationally syndicated columns, he has called President Bush an “incompetent frat boy” and Rupert Murdoch a “schlockmeister.” Neither characterization tells us anything substantive about what’s wrong with their thoughts or actions. (Truth be told, however, I secretly enjoy and make a game out of anticipating how Keillor will work in a Bush bash on “A Prairie Home Companion.” My favorites are the ones he puts into the “Message From the Ketchup Advisory Board.”)
I’m an unabashed Republican, and I fully recognizes that Republicans elected to office sometimes make ad hominem attacks, as well. My personal favorite is when President George Herbert Walker Bush, upon first meeting Paul Wellsone, asked “Who is this chickenshit?” For the record, Janecek and Wellstone laughed about that one, more than once.
DFL U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken has written entire books based on ad hominem attacks, such as “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot” and “Lying Liars and the Liars Who Tell Them.” (For the record, Franken identified me as one of the “lying liars” for my comments about the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone’s memorial service. My reply to him has always been, “You spelled my name wrong, and that was the least egregious of your errors.”)
Franken is fond of frequently invoking the name of Wellstone, whom Franken regards as his mentor. Perhaps Franken should review Wellstone’s record. Early in his Senate career, Wellstone made ad hominem attacks on Sen. Jesse Helms, a conservative Republican from North Carolina. But Wellstone recognized he’d crossed a line and apologized. The two became mutually respectful by sticking to the issues. Wellstone ended the personal attacks, but Franken continues as “Ad Hominem Al.”
And therein lies the most significant and fundamental difference between Franken and Mike Ciresi, Franken’s chief rival for the DFL endorsement to run against incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman. Ciresi never devolves into ad hominem attacks.
My New Year’s wish coming true depends entirely on Franken.
Democrats might come to the realization that despite all the purported differences on the issues, Ciresi and Franken are pretty much in sync on the major issue — neither of them is Norm Coleman. By endorsing Ciresi, Democrats have the opportunity to just say no to ad hominem attacks.
Alternatively, Democrats could choose to endorse Franken. If so, Franken could take a lesson from Wellstone’s career by recognizing and apologizing for making personal attacks.
We Minnesotans are a forgiving people. We forgave Paul Wellstone, and I for one, would forgive Al Franken if he apologized and told us something like, “Hey, sorry about those books, I was just trying to be provocative and make a buck.”