- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 8, 2004

There seems a lack of civility, good manners, decorum and protocol in Washington these days. When former Sen. Bob Kerrey walked out on the president (to meet a senator for fund-raising) accompanied by former Rep. Lee Hamilton (to introduce the Canadian prime minister at a luncheon), it seemed we had reached a new low in bad manners.

First, members of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States complained the president really didn’t support their existence. Then some claimed the president didn’t want to meet with the commission.

Once scheduled, critics said the president wanted a time limit on the meeting. Finally, in the middle of the historic (and almost unprecedented) meeting, commission members apparently said, “Sorry, Mr. President, we have other appointments and have to go.”

Leaving the presence of the senior or more important dignitary prematurely, according to my mother and 24 years of military education, is almost as bad as arriving too late. Michael Jackson arrived late at a court hearing earlier this year and suffered the admonishment of the judge. By leaving the meeting with the president early, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hamilton put themselves gladly into the same socially aware club as the “King of Pop.”

Does it matter? Sure it does. Thoughtful, courteous national discourse has managed to get us through a revolution against the most powerful nation on the Earth, a War Between the States, and other tragedies and trying times. If we can get along, maybe we can discuss the problems and get the best answers. Maybe a more civil and etiquette-driven discussion of the issues can help us get through the War on Terror.

Instead, we have become a nation led by name-callers, insult-slingers and generally rude, angry and impolite representatives. What does this teach our children?

Our American history is full of great men who teach us the importance of good conduct for the common good. Some say George Washington actually authored “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.” Though not the author, Washington embraced good manners so famously that the “Rules” could easily have been his own creation.

The good manners of John Adams also echo to us through history. With Thomas Paine, Adams watched a young American officer conduct himelf less than diplomatically and courteously before the King of France. Adams wrote to his wife, describing the “Man of Choleric Temper.” Adams said the man “like so many Gentlemen from his State, is abrupt and undiplomatic. Last evening, at a Royal Reception, he confronted His Most Christian Majesty Louis XVI with Words both ardent and impatient, whilst Mr. Paine wrung his Hands at the other man’s lack of Tact. Never did I think that I would see our impetuous Paine so pain’d by another’s want of Courtesy and Civility. To our amazement, however, the King took [the mans] Enthusiasm in good Part.”

When told one of his generals, John C. Fremont, had been nominated by a group of 400 anti-Lincoln loyalists to run for president, Lincoln opened a Bible and read aloud from I Samuel:22, “And everyone that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men.”

Modern statesmen pulled the country together, not by tearing others apart or barking at the media, but more often by thoughtful discourse and conduct.

“Both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt operated beautifully on the reporters who surrounded them,” wrote David Keirsey and Ray Choiniere in “Presidential Temperament.” “Both used the press as if it were their own publicity machine.” This was largely achieved in a civil, diplomatic style.

I cannot ever recall seeing John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, or George W. Bush look petulant, angry or rude.

Other great national leaders also reflect respect, even admiration, for the importance of good protocol and decorum. Winston Churchill described a 1941 university ceremony this way: “The blitz was running hard at that time, and the night before, the raid … had been heavy. Several hundreds had been killed and wounded. Many houses were destroyed. Buildings next to the university were still burning, and many of the university authorities who conducted the ceremony had pulled on their robes over uniforms begrimed and drenched; but all was presented with faultless ritual and appropriate decorum, and I sustained a very strong and invigorating impression of the superiority of man over the forces that can destroy him.”

Let’s hope our leaders become enlightened enough to avoid the forces that can destroy them. For our sake and the sake of our children.

With that, on this Mother’s Day, I thank my own mother for her determined effort to impart good sense, good conduct and decorum upon this writer. I regret the times that bad conduct, anger and a disregard for etiquette got the best of me. I hope our present day political leaders see the light too.


Mr. Carey is a writer in Arlington, Va.

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