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Posted by on May 31, 2016 in Politics, Society | 4 comments

What Happens to Governing When Campaigning is Nasty?


My son posted the graphic featuring the Ivins quote on his Facebook page.

Because I’m reading Jon Meacham’s biography of George H.W. Bush, the graphic inspired me to write in his comments about what happens when good people behave badly. (I’m only up to Bush’s move into the oil business in my reading of Meacham’s book, by the way.)

One of the things that has always struck me about President Bush (#41) is that, while holding public office, he always conducted himself with honor and integrity, seeking to do what was best for the country.

His decision to free the country of the massive debt rung up by his reckless predecessor, Ronald Reagan, despite the political costs to himself, is one example.

His pulling together of an international coalition to reverse the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a masterstroke of diplomacy. And the calibrated, appropriate application of power in that war, falling well short of nation-building and imposition on others, while standing up for the right and hemming a dictator in, displayed not only ability but wisdom. (Remember that even then, he had people telling him to go in and topple Hussein. He understood that doing so would have been destabilizing, as subsequent events have shown.)

His advocacy for and signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act resulted in the greatest and most significant piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But Bush hated campaigning and took a low view of what was appropriate.

As a result, he was a nasty campaigner, though it was incongruous with his principles and character.

After winning the 1988 campaign with the nasty tactics of Lee Atwater, he called, with all sincerity for a “kinder and gentler” politics in his 1989 Inaugural Address.

Ivins was right though,

    you can’t keep appealing to the baseness of voters and expect to be able to consistently govern with integrity and a fair regard for the opinions of others


Once a party–any party–starts to treat those with whom it disagrees as enemies rather than simply as people with whom there is disagreement, the ugliness of people, the expectation that politics should be a zero-sum game of winners and losers, and the nastiness of the political process are uncorked.

Years ago, I remember reading an interview with the actor (and activist) Robert Redford. He reported being appalled after going to a dinner in Washington, at seeing a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican who had gone after each other in debate on the Senate floor earlier in the day, laughing and talking amicably while at the event. He expected incivility.

Redford’s expectation of our politicians is the same as those of many people in both parties, these days. It’s infantile and destructive.

The frustrating thing about Bush 41, our best president, I think, since Dwight Eisenhower, is that he knew the costs of unleashing the “enemies list” genie. He had watched Richard Nixon bring our political system to its knees with that insanity.

And Bush the Elder is, by nature, I think, a man who searches for ways to move the public interests forward while working with people from all points of view.

He just wasn’t secure enough in his appeal, I believe, to be Bush when he ran for office. Thankfully, he was Bush while in office.

But now, it seems, that we have two major party contenders who, whatever their impulses may be, have so sucked up to the nasties of their own parties that they may be unable to govern once elected. It’s not as though we need more gridlock. But that, or worse, seems likely to happen whoever of these two horrible candidates–Clinton or Trump–is elected.

[Mark Daniels blogs here and is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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