Civility, politics, and the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation

Friday is the fortieth anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency. This event was historical for many reason, not the least of which was that it marked the only time an American president had resigned from office. It, along with the Vietnam War, were two events that increased citizen’s cynicism about government.

Another lasting impact of the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation was the increase in incivility in American politics. One of my most vivid memories from childhood was watching my mother cry as Watergate unfolded and especially the day Nixon went on national television and announced his resignation. As a young person I thought it was because she really like Richard Nixon, but as I became older and talked to her about those events, I realized that her emotions were about something more fundamental–about the disregard political leaders had for their offices and, by extension, the American people.

My mother’s shock was in part due to the stories about political espionage and coverup by the Nixon team that unfolded after his reelection. She was not a naive person and understood that politicians were, at times, corrupt. The part that shocked her the most were the stories about Nixon’s interactions with his staff like Chuck Colson and the vulgarity of his language as he referred to his political opponents and the American people. She believed that presidents and other political leaders, no matter how much they disagreed with their opponents, should operate using the norms of politeness.

After Nixon resigned, I noticed a fundamental shift in my mother. Her comments about politicians of both major parties became very harsh. She demonstrated equal disdain for Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Interestingly enough, although she did not like many of George H. W. Bush’s policies, she thought he and Barbara Bush were fine people and her comments about them were very civil.

In the years since Nixon’s resignation, there has been little civility in politics. National politics has become little more than 24/7 name calling and personal attack. Citizens and pundits routinely demonstrate their disregard for politicians, only matched by politicians disparagement of each other and for citizens.

This lack of civility has filtered down to the local level. On Monday, at the Wake County Board of Commissioner’s meeting, long-time Democratic commissioner Betty Lou Ward was denied the right to participate in the debate and vote about allowing a referendum on the November ballot to raise the local sales tax to support teacher salaries. The county attorney stated that Ward could participate, even though she was home recuperating from surgery, but Board Chair Paul Coble and other Republicans denied her ability to participate, ensuring defeat of the referendum vote.

Several citizens in attendance at the meeting have written letters to the editor or posted comments related not only to this political action, but also about Coble’s behavior during the meeting, specifically commenting on how he ignored teachers who commented at the meeting, preferring to spend time on his cell phone or iPad.

The lack of civility throughout the political world has many ramifications, including increasing the cynicism Americans feel about politics and government. In recent polls, only about 1-in-5 Americans feel that the country is on the right track. As I get ready to teach college students about the importance of being involved in the political process, I find it increasingly difficult to convince young people that politicians from Nixon to Coble who blatantly disregard citizens are worth the time.

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