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WHEN WE peel away the matter of manners, which Emily Post assures us are merely the tools of etiquette, etiquette can be defined as a system of conventional rules that control our social or professional behavior.
"No rule of law ... decrees that a soup plate should be tilted away from, never toward, the diner ... but etiquette ordains it and it is obeyed." So says the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Today America is in need of an etiquette for political campaigns as waged by politicians and reported by journalists. "Some people think that etiquette is fine for tea parties, but there's no room for it when important political business has to be done," writes Miss Manners,(r) otherwise known as Judith Martin. "That's not true. The more controversy you have, the more etiquette you need. You need rules and order." The missing ingredient in efforts to improve campaign discourse is a set of agreed-upon norms and standards for behavior.
There's a lot that troubles us about how politics is conducted. Scholar Stephen L. Carter is right: "Our public dialogue—our very language—has been debased through the move toward negativity and even hostility, so that, in an argument, the first weapon we reach for is often the most extreme." "If I can make Willie Horton a household name, we'll win the election," said Lee Atwater, George Bush's 1988 campaign manager, foreshadowing the TV commercial that would link a convicted murderer to the Democratic presidential nominee.
There's a lotthattroubles us about how politicians are covered. Journalist Lars-Erik Nelson is right: "We don't even need accusations. All we need are loaded, insinuating questions and we can make anybody look guilty." "Does he have a sexually transmitted disease?" asked National Public Radio's Mara Liasson of the president's press secretary at a White House briefing in 1996.
Under what circumstances is a candidate's sex life acceptable grist for the campaign mill? When is it acceptable to discuss an opponent's family? When is it permissible to ask questions about a candidate's medical records and mental health? Lacking an etiquette, such questions are often answered on the basis of political or journalistic exigency—that is, what will make the biggest headline.
This book is arranged alphabetically: Advertising, Bias, Conventions, Debates, Endorsements, Families, Gender, Health, and so forth. There are forty-one entries. Each concludes with suggested rules of etiquette. In case I haven't made myself perfectly clear, the essays are illustrated with the etched-in-acid opinions of some of America's most talented editorial cartoonists, who contributed their genius to this undertaking. And for those who wish to delve deeper into a particular topic, there is a reference guide at the end of the book. While my examples will be drawn largely from presidential campaigns, the principles are generally applicable to all campaigns, from those for the White House to the ones for the school board. According to the census, there are 513,200 elected officials in the United States. Probably 250,000 people seek elective office each year.
"Politics is never pretty," Marianne Means of the Hearst Newspapers observes, "but surely it need not be this unrelentingly ugly." I agree. I also agree with E. J. Dionne Jr. that "I'm willing to trade a little authenticity for a little courtesy." Yet only at the edges is this a book about civility. My intention is not to propose courtly ways or to get stuffy about what a Baltimore Sun columnist of my youth called "The Great Game of Politics." In San Luis Obispo in 1962, as Richard Nixon was making a speech from the observation platform of the last car of his campaign train, a Democratic prankster named Dick Tuck, wearing a trainman's cap, signaled the engineer to pull out of the station and thus left the candidate stranded in mid-sentence. I was on that train as Nixon's speechwriter and I can still laugh at a good joke. Being of the old school, I continue to think politics can and should be fun. Politics in the United States has a long history as entertainment going back to the torchlight parades with marchers wearing oilskin capes to protect themselves from the dripping of kerosene and giant outdoor rallies measured in acres, 10,000 enthusiasts to the acre.
I'm also old enough to be cranky. Why must every two-bit scandal get a gate suffix, as in gurugate or nannygate? Why do TV newscasters seldom admit they're wrong? Why should politicians think we are influenced by whom Barbra Streisand endorses for president? Can't debates be more interesting? Can't there be a more sensible calendar of presidential primaries? I readily admit that some of my agenda gets mixed in with the etiquette.
Ultimately, then, this is a how-to book dedicated to the proposition that all of us, including politicians and journalists, prefer abiding by rules to breaking them. The hard part is agreeing on the rules. Let's get started.