Just Stop Shouting And Listen to Me!

As long as we’re wallowing in Nixon nostalgia-yes, Richard Nixon, the flawed man who put the national interest ahead of personal ambition in 1960-let’s revisit another item in the Nixon canon: his inaugural address in 1969. Speaking to a badly divided nation after an extremely close election, Nixon said: “Greatness comes in simple trappings. The simple things are the ones most needed today if we are to surmount what divides us, and cement what unites us. To lower our voices would be a simple thing.”

At the time, Nixon’s national shushing was interpreted-at least among the legion of critics that dreamed day and night of his destruction, his absolute and total and complete destruction and, oh, they were out there all right, in their ivory towers and fancy homes and sleek limousines-as a velvet-fisted attempt to squash dissent.

Three decades later, Nixon’s plea reads like innocence itself: Imagine us, in the year 2000, voluntarily lowering the decibel level of political debate. Why, what would all those television hosts do for a living? And how could third-rate minds become television stars and national celebrities? And what of the semi-literates on the Internet, sending along their drivel in capital letters?

Perhaps it would have been simple, indeed, to lower our voices in 1969. Not any longer. The loudest shouter gets a slot on Rivera Live or Hardball , and a shot at the fame that brings more television appearances, “books” (the word is used advisedly) and party invitations. Channel- trawlers whose poor hand-eye coordination results in more than a quick pass through the political talk shows should give Nixon’s address a read. For a guy who was envious of John Kennedy’s poetic inaugural (it was said that when he heard Kennedy’s reference to “a beachhead of cooperation” pushing back “the jungle of suspicion,” he asked why his own speechwriters couldn’t paint such pictures), Nixon was positively eloquent on the subject of a poisoned vocabulary.

“In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading,” he said. “We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another-until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.”

Learn from one another? What a quaint notion! How charming it must have been, back in the 1960’s and 70’s!

The charges and counter-charges made in only the last couple of weeks (never mind the better part of the last decade) ought to be enough to suppress the vote nationwide in 2004. People who ought to know better have accused their counterparts-people who simply disagree with them-of every imaginable crime. Bush voters, according to former White House aide Paul Begala, constitute a separate nation of racist and homophobic murderers. Al Sharpton-oh, and wasn’t it great to see him on the scene in Florida?-saw racism at work in several Florida counties. Republican operatives accused their Democratic peers of trying to steal the election, and several more dim-witted types seemed to hint at civil unrest, or worse, if Al Gore were elected. Such inflammatory rhetoric descends from the level of debate during the Clinton years, during which the right accused the President of treason, among other crimes, and the left accused Newt Gingrich of fomenting domestic terrorism. What a pleasant national conversation we’ve been having!

It probably would do no good to ask such people, as Nixon asked young and old alike in 1969, to lower their voices. Crude volume is all they have, or at least all they wish to display. Continued appearances in living rooms across the country, continued empty fame, depends on their ferocious disregard of polite society’s conventions.

“When we listen to the ‘better angels of our nature,'” Nixon said, “we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things-such as goodness, decency, love, kindness.”

What politician would risk the easy cynicism of the Op-Ed brigade to make so earnest an assertion? What pundit would utter such sentiments in a television studio? Certainly nobody who wishes a place at the national conversation, conducted nightly at decibel levels that would scandalize Richard Nixon.

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Note to readers: The reference last week to Bill Clinton possibly running against George W. Bush in 2004 was meant as a joke. A pretty poor one, considering how it was executed (a deranged Democratic fantasy), but a joke nonetheless. I was delighted- really, no kidding-to find out how many readers were familiar with the precise language of the 22nd Amendment: “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice….” Geez, what about that person’s wife?