It’s hard to say whether the poisonous political climate contributed to the state of mind that prompted an unstable young man to an assassination attempt against a member of the U.S. Congress on Saturday. But it will be a good thing if concern over that possibility leads to an increase in respect and civility in our national dialogue.

It will be a very bad thing, however, if this degenerates into yet another finger-pointing exercise designed to place blame on one side or the other, as a story in today’s New York Times suggests may be happening.

Allow me, if you will, a bit of nostalgia for a time when deep political differences were not so personal.

When I worked on Capitol Hill in the seventies, the issues were no less serious or emotional than they are today. It was a difficult time in our nation’s history. We had just experienced the resignation in shame of our president and a massive repudiation of his party in the 1974 mid-term elections. The 1976 election led to the rejection of a good man and the election of an unknown Southern governor, giving the Democrats overwhelming one-party control of the Congress.

I worked for a Republican congressman, buried deep in the minority. However, he happened to be the Republican leader on the biggest issue of the day, the national energy crisis, at a time when gas shortages and long lines at service stations were impacting the daily lives of all Americans. It appeared that America’s best days may have been behind us as we faced what seemed might be an inevitable decline.

By virtue of the fact that oil-state Democrats often voted with Republicans on the most difficult energy issues, my boss, U.S. Rep. Clarence J. Brown, Jr., R-OH, was able to garner enough support to have considerable influence on policy debates. His Democratic counterpart, U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill, Jr., D-MA, had to fight hard to control enough Democratic votes to prevail on major bills and that gave Brown enough power to move the legislative debate toward his point of view.

Brown and Dingell, both sons of congressmen, fought tooth and nail on issue after issue. The stakes were high, and occasionally emotions ran high as well. But after the gavel came down at the end of the day, Brown and Dingell could be seen walking down the hall together, sometimes with arms draped around each other’s shoulders, talking and laughing. Dingell’s office was across the hall from ours, and you could hear him coming down the hall, whistling. Often, he would stop into our office before going into his, just to say hello to the staff.

This was possible because Brown and Dingell were able to separate their policy differences from their personal relationship. They were friends. They respected each other. And they never let their legislative or political differences become personal.

I’m sure those kinds of friendships still exist in Washington, but they have been obscured by the highly inflammatory and personal attacks that now pervade our political system, encouraged and heightened by the talking heads and poison pens of the 24-hour cable and blogosphere screaming match.

It’s time to cool the rhetoric and recognize that disagreements and respect not only can, but must co-exist if we are to have the kind of civil society that allows all of us to achieve our highest ideals.

Roger Bolton
SVP, Communications, Aetna (Retd.)
Senior Counselor, RBC Strategic Consulting