Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Perhaps it’s the one thing political strategists have not tried: Civility. Some say etiquette and decorum could provide a valuable edge for White House hopefuls along a shrill campaign trail.

“Civility plays very well with the American public. You can’t underestimate the power of it in a campaign, or in the White House itself,” said Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, who was chief of protocol for the United States from 1982 to 1989.

Squabbles among candidates have made much news this week, though opinion polls reveal a nation weary of arguments but hungry for clear information about issues and values. Sterling manners, however, make for more productive debate. Civility might be part of appearing presidential.

“Civility is power. The process of civility itself — respect, listening, dialogue — enabled the nation’s founders to get on higher ground, to avoid being entangled at some low level,” said David Abshire, president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency.

The candidates, he said, attack one another’s personality quirks rather than policies.

“Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was known as a ‘lady’ even while she met the challenges of her office head on. And being a lady didn’t mean backing down from a fight,” said executive coach Roxanne Rivera, a former spokeswoman for the New Mexico Republican Party

She advises Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to borrow a page from Mrs. Thatcher’s playbook. The New York Democrat “should resist the urge to become one of the boys,” she said.

“A lady knows and keeps her boundaries, has infinite grace under pressure, and takes care of herself. A lady never ridicules or bashes other women or men. A lady makes people feel at ease in her presence,” Ms. Rivera continued. “These are rules to live by for any woman and especially for the one running for president. Dignity and class are what can take Hillary to the top.”

Such thinking could help everybody, according to Anna Post, great-great-granddaughter of etiquette maven Emily Post and a spokeswoman for the Vermont-based Emily Post Institute.

“Using civility is an opportunity for the candidates to show their character by engaging each other without getting nasty,” she said. “Look, all of them are smart. And all of them are capable. But are they capable of rising above the cheap shot? Show me.”

But journalists tend to reward the cheap shot. A Harvard University survey of 1,207 adults released in November found that 88 percent said the press focused on the campaign’s trivial issues, while 76 percent said “most journalists” don’t bother to get the whole story. Nine of 10 respondents wanted more serious information on the candidates’ policies and personal values. Two-thirds said the press dwelled too much on embarrassing gaffes and negative campaigning.

“I don’t fault the news media entirely. But they have to be selective,” said Miss Post. “If they highlight contention about something unimportant, then, for shame. But if they show an argument which brings an issue to light or holds someone accountable — then that’s just fine.”

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