The shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others Wednesday during practice for the congressional baseball game has brought an outpouring of sympathy from across the political spectrum. At the White House, President Donald Trump was refreshingly gracious: “We may have our differences, but we do well in times like these to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country.” TV commentators who usually drip with contempt about all things Republican were somber and sympathetic.
Only tragedy persuades us to put down our verbal cudgels, and even then not for very long. In one instant we are united in horror; the next, cable news guests are screaming about whose fault it was.
What if we decided not to wait for a tragedy before we found the strength to honor those who disagree with us? Because it does take strength to be civil. Being nasty is easy. I have long argued that civility is a sacrifice that we make for the sake of our common life.
When I make this point at a moment apart from tragedy, the answer I hear most frequently is that the political issues are so important that the people on the other side are obviously not merely wrong but evil. Civility is hard work, but it’s a part of the fundamental work of democracy.
Here both sides might usefully learn a lesson from Thurgood Marshall, whose nomination to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court was announced 50 years ago this week. I was honored to serve as one of Marshall’s law clerks.That he was able to fight unceasingly for what he believed to be right while remaining civil toward the other side suggests that it should be possible for the rest of us to do the same.
This spring also marks the 60th anniversary of a television interview that he gave to Mike Wallace of CBS News. I want to single out two snippets that seem to be of particular importance.
For my friends on the right, particularly those who support Trump, there is the moment when Wallace asks Marshall whether he believes that President Dwight Eisenhower has done all that he should have to support the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, at that time three years young.
Marshall answered: “The president should have shortly after the decisions, or at least by now, have gotten on the television network or radio and spoken as the chief executive of this government to the good people of the South, urging them to support the decision of the Supreme Court as the law of the land whether they believed in it or not … and to use the full influence of his position as president to bring about peaceful solution of this problem.”Marshall added: “Our moral leadership should come from the top executive of the government. It’s his responsibility. He can’t duck it.”
The president’s respect for the courts should be reflexive, like his love of country. Yes, like anyone else, judges can be wrong. But it’s the responsibility of those who hold positions of power and influence to find ways to criticize the decisions of the courts without resorting to invective and name-calling.
The interview also contains a lesson in civility for my friends on the left. Wallace poses a hard question:
Do you feel any sympathy for, any understanding of the Southerner, the white Southerner who is forced suddenly to change not only his attitude but his whole way of life?
Marshall’s reply is instructive: “I have as much sympathy as I could have for anybody. I recognize it is a tough problem. It’s a problem that at times would seem to the average Southern white man as being insoluble. I recognize it, and I for one would do everything in my power – so would the NAACP – to work it out in a way that would be satisfactory to both sides’ concerns.”
This attitude, is far more productive than the tendency of today’s progressives to couch every controversy in Manichaean terms: never a hint of compromise, never a whisper of sympathy for those it is easier to call names.
Let me be clear. I am referring here only to how we debate. The blame for Wednesday’s shooting rests entirely on the shooter, not on either side’s incivility. I am suggesting, rather, that we as a nation would be stronger if the sense of togetherness that touched us all when we heard the news from Virginia should this time prove to be not as brief and evanescent as usual.