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Commentary: A lesson in political civility and serious discourse

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 22, 2008 - The presidential campaign is entering the debate phase. Yet some of the discussion is neither elevated nor courageous and at least one candidate, Gov. Sarah Palin, resists the normal scrutiny of media interviews.

In thinking of the standards we should set for presidential and vice presidential candidates, the vice presidential campaign of Sen. Edmund S. Muskie in 1968 offers an instructive model. We might begin with Muskie's appearance in St. Louis 40 years ago, on Sept. 10, 1968, when Muskie came to our town on the third day of his first national campaign as the new running mate of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.

The Humphrey-Muskie campaign was in trouble. It was far behind in the polls, the Democratic Party was divided with some supporters of Sen. Eugene McCarthy unwilling to support Humphrey due to differences over the war in Vietnam and with many southern Democrats supporting Gov. George Wallace in his third-party campaign. The brutality of the police-protester confrontations at the just-completed Democratic convention in Chicago left a terrible memory. The Humphrey-Muskie campaign had little money and could not afford to offend its supporters who had deep pockets.

Muskie had already had a long day when he spoke to a reception for civic leaders at the home of Mayor Alfonso J. Cervantes of St. Louis. As he often did, Muskie spoke without a text. Those in his audience had all achieved great success and, as Muskie put it, "I'm not sure that what I'm about to say is exactly what you'd like to hear someone in my position say."

The senator from Maine wanted to speak with them about his concern with the alienation of youth. Young people had "honest doubts" about the validity of the American system, he twice insisted. Adults needed to respond with "[t]rust and confidence" in youth to engage them in the system.

"I plead with you," said Muskie, to use your resources "to deal with this problem of the young people as though they were all your children, that you are trying in some way to harness their great urges and desires and instincts and protests into the constructive channels which make a free society work."

How might this little episode at the beginning of a campaign 40 years ago help suggest standards for today's candidates? Muskie did not pander to his audience. His listeners consisted of beneficiaries of the political and economic system that American youth were challenging in ways that were neither conventional nor respectful. Rather than appeal to his listeners by denouncing the tactics and positions of youth, Muskie used his forum to try to persuade his listeners to hear their "honest doubts" and to allow their voices to be heard. He recognized that leadership often required persuading others to do right rather than appealing to the predispositions of an audience.

Muskie's comments also confirmed his belief in civil discourse. He did not condemn the system's critics, question their patriotism or suggest excluding them. He did not demean those with whom he disagreed, and there was nothing sarcastic in his comments. Instead, he encouraged his audience of "haves" to initiate a conversation with American youth (the "have-nots") in which the leaders listened as well as spoke, so that learning would travel in both directions.

Far from fanning culture wars, as do some modern leaders, Muskie suggested trying to find common ground with the counterculture of 1968. He did not insist that his way was the only way. Rather, he suggested that a cross- cultural conversation would be more constructive than cultural warfare.

Finally, Muskie believed that the American system of politics and government could work - but only if it were open and gave a fair hearing, to all voices. The young people needed to be brought into the system not simply to engage them but also to allow the democratic system to be truly inclusive. It would function better if it tapped their ideas and energies.

Muskie could speak extemporaneously because he had thought about fundamental issues regarding our country in a deep way. He had subjected his ideas to the test that dialogue and questioning brings. He believed in civil discourse as a way of doing governmental business and as a way of allowing the sort of political conversations that nurture democracy. And he was not afraid to challenge his listeners to embrace the highest ideals of our system rather than pandering to their predispositions.

Joel Goldstein is a professor of law at Saint Louis University School of Law and a recognized expert on the vice presidency.