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‘Civil discourse,’ Etheridge-style

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This week, my eldest daughter began a summer internship in Washington. She is so enamored of our nation's capital that she even likes the humidity that leaves bus fumes hanging in midair like carcinogenic cotton candy.

For political science majors like her, Washington is Disneyland.

Flocking to the city with a few items of business attire and enough enthusiasm to light up our national monuments for two months, college students immerse themselves in the real world of politics that they usually can only dream about while struggling to write papers about political theory.

Suddenly, they're wandering the streets scoping out politicians like celebrities on the red carpet. But as two college students learned this week, politicians can be dangerous.

Especially if asked whether they support President Obama's agenda.

That question ignited a simmering fury in Rep. Bob Etheridge, North Carolina Democrat. In a video that went viral on the Internet, a young man in a suit is seen greeting the congressman as he walks down the street. Then the college student respectfully asks if Mr. Etheridge supports the president's agenda.

It's clear on the video that the young man is holding up his cell phone, presumably to videotape the congressman's reply. Mr. Etheridge, rather than reply to the question in any fashion, repeatedly shouts, "Who are you?" He reaches for and knocks away the cell phone of the young man in the video and then grabs and holds his arm.

Another young man also taped the encounter (his video is the one that made it to the Internet) and his voice can be heard in the background. The two don't identify themselves except to say they are college students working on a project. They should have, but the fact that they wouldn't give their names or say where they were from doesn't excuse Mr. Etheridges response (as some liberal bloggers now argue).

Mr. Etheridge, who is larger and more substantial than the young man in his grip, continues to hold him in a threatening manner despite cries of "Please let go of me."

It's enough to conjure wistful thoughts of former Rep. Eric Massa's cuddle puddle.

Within a few hours of the video's attaining viral status, Mr. Etheridge released a statement saying he had seen the video and "deeply and profoundly" regretted his "reaction." He apologized to all involved.

Of course, in typical political fashion, his statement includes a passive-aggressive excuse for his barbaric behavior: "No matter how intrusive and partisan our politics can become, this does not justify a poor response. I have and I will always work to promote a civil public discourse."

"Intrusive and partisan"? Nice try, Mr. Etheridge. You're a United States congressman walking down a public street in Washington, D.C., and you simply were asked if you supported the agenda of your party's president.

In a country that values free speech as paramount to civil public discourse, those young men had every right to ask the question, and the video proves they did so respectfully and courteously.

The veiled attempt to blame the college students for provoking him is yet another example of the lack of character that is rampant among our elected officials.

To be clear, Mr. Etheridge's "reaction" to the congressman-on-the-street interview is called "assault" in the District of Columbia and every other jurisdiction in the United States.

As hokey as it sounds, the thousands of college students who have descended upon the nation's capital -- reflecting all political points of view -- represent the future of our country.

The disrespect exhibited by Mr. Etheridge, not only for the young men involved in the incident, but for all young people who passionately engage in civics, is a pathetic glimpse into the real world that is Washington.

Maybe, given that he's running for re-election, Mr. Etheridge didn't want to go on record as supporting the president's agenda.

Then again, maybe he does, and he was just out looking to kick someone's ... er ... well, you know.

Civil public discourse sure is taking a beating lately.

*Visit Marybeth Hicks at ww.marybethhicks.com.

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