Spotswood: McCain sets example for civic discourse

At an August 2016 campaign rally in York, Pennsylvania, a woman supporter of Republican presidential candidate John McCain stood up and said, “I can’t trust Obama, I read about him, and he’s not, he’s not – he’s an Arab.” McCain’s reply not only showed his personal character but provides a teaching moment for all who hold or seek public office.

by Dick Spotswood  |  MIJ
McCain instantly replied, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaigning is all about. … He is a decent person and a person you do not have to be scared of as president. … I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments, I will respect him. I want everyone to be respectful, and let’s make sure we are because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America.”

The Arizonan’s gentle rebuke worked, because the woman and McCain were both on the same side of the political divide. It wouldn’t have been so powerful and memorable if one of them was deep red and the other blue. When the admonition comes from your ally, it’s far more difficult to ignore.

I’ve seen the same approach here in Marin at city council meetings, community gatherings and political events. Unfortunately, that level of wisdom isn’t universal, even here in supposedly sophisticated Marin.

Traditionally, some Marin city councils have followed an unwritten rule. If an audience member went over the line and verbally attacked another with whom they strongly disagreed, it was time for a council member to take action. It was understood in those thankfully rare situations, it was the council member most identified with the out-of-control audience member’s policy position that needed to immediately act to get the proceeding back on track.

Normally, that’s the mayor’s duty, but every once in awhile it’s clear to all that something special is required if tensions are to be de-escalated. How much better when the council member giving the admonition agrees with the audience member, explains the comment was out of line and counterproductive for their joint cause.

Occasionally, the shoe is on the other foot and it’s the official who rudely shakes their head or non-verbally displays disdain for an audience member or a colleague. Then it’s time for a member of the audience who is regarded as a close supporter of the errant school trustee, council member or candidate to stand up and politely remind them that their actions are inappropriate.

For those who believe this approach interferes with the give-and-take that is properly part of every serious policy debate, understand that verbal personal attacks discourage free speech.

Normal people — those who aren’t professional meeting attenders — need encouragement just to attend council meetings, school board sessions or town halls. Enabling them to actually approach the microphone and share their opinion is hard. Only if the convening agency does all in its power to prevent audience members from crude assaults and calumny will most folks venture out and join the civic discussion.

All community divides require mature leaders who, paraphrasing McCain, need to say, particularly to their supporters and allies, “I want everyone to be respectful, and let’s make sure we are because that’s the way politics should be conducted in Marin.”

 

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