From the beginning, politics has always been a contact sport with competing interests attempting to achieve power over each other. A friend recently said to me he has never seen it so bad as it is today.
The friend appears to be in his 50s, so he missed the divisions caused by the Vietnam War, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the racial riots of the 60s and 70s and he may have not studied divisions that led to the Civil War.
Those of us longing for a more civil approach than today’s political warfare should watch a speech given by Ronald Reagan at a dinner at Boston College honoring then-Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. It was March 17, 1986, St. Patrick’s Day.
Reagan invoked his and O’Neill’s Irish ancestry, but he did more than that. Reagan spoke of a man he respected and even admired in spite of their political differences. As has been frequently noted, they often worked out those differences over drinks at the White House.
Reagan began his remarks as usual with a joke: “I’ve always known that Tip was behind me, even if it was only at the State of the Union Address. As I made each proposal, I could hear Tip whispering to (Vice President) George Bush ‘no way, forget it, fat chance’ ” (loud laughter and applause).
There is a kindness in Reagan on display at the event, even when he was kidding and especially when he kidded O’Neill.
Reagan used self-deprecating humor about his age as he did to great success in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale: “(Tip) said since it was March 17 it was only fitting that someone drop by who had actually known St. Patrick.”
Noting the two had been kidding each other for some time, Reagan said he hoped that would continue for years to come. Then he said something unheard of in today’s political discourse: “A little kidding is after all a sign of affection, the sort of thing that friends do to each other. And, Mr. Speaker, I’m grateful you have permitted me in the past, and I hope in the future, that singular honor, the honor of calling you my friend.”
Can anyone hear Donald Trump or any other candidate for or in public office saying things like that in 2023?
Reagan went on to make an important point that seems to have been lost between then and now: “I think the fact of our friendship is testimony to the political system we’re part of and the country we live in, a country that permits two not so shy and not so retiring Irishmen to have it out on the issues, rather than have it out on each other, or their countrymen.”
Reagan said he “saluted” O’Neill “for his years of dedication and devotion to the country.” He said he had been a “vital and forceful part of America’s political tradition, a tradition that he has truly enriched.”
If you are a Republican, you might read these words, watch the entire address and think that’s all well and good, but have you ever heard a modern Democrat say anything comparable about a Republican, except perhaps at their funeral?
That’s not the point. Kindness and praise for one’s political opponent can affect others, especially voters. As Abraham Lincoln said about the South: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Is anyone listening?