By Matt Wilson
NASHVILLE -- Former U.S. Senate leaders Bob Dole and Tom Daschle and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen agreed Tuesday that American political discourse has become less civil, but they expressed hope that the national dialogue soon may change.
The men discussed the issue with journalist John Seigenthaler Sr. at the Civility in Governance forum at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.
"Something in the culture of political discourse has changed," Mr. Seigenthaler said. "It's more coarse."
Mr. Dole said he believed all the members of the panel were optimistic about a change toward a less contentious dialogue.
"We're going to start turning the corner," he said.
Mr. Dole, R-Kansas, said the dialogue in Congress has become "more personal and more confrontational." He said the key to changing that mentality is for public officials to keep from viewing opponents as enemies.
Mr. Daschle, D-S.D., said civility depends on having respect for the institutions of government.
"If we put the institutions ahead of party or institutions in front of our own personal agenda, my guess is we'd see a different direction," he said.
He said institutional respect creates a groundwork by which elected officials can find common ground.
Gov. Bredesen said he agreed with Mr. Daschle that common ground is important, but he said that "you can overrate civility, as well."
The governor said good relationships in government are like good marriages.
"(The members) fight, but there are some things you just don't say," he said.
Gov. Bredesen also said adversarial discussions can bring out the truth in some cases.
Mr. Daschle agreed that adversarial politics can be beneficial, calling political arguments "the noise of democracy."
He also said American politics always has been contentious but that things now are "more transparent" with heightened media coverage. Mr. Daschle used the example of when U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts nearly to death on the Senate floor in 1856.
Mr. Dole said media competition and the 24-hour, seven-day news cycle have contributed to the lack of civility.
News outlets are more likely to cover contentious issues, especially within parties, than those issues on which officials agree, Mr. Dole said.
Gov. Bredesen said the news media should serve as the referee in political fights.
"I think they're doing just the opposite," he said.
The forum was hosted by the First Amendment Center, the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center, the Tennessee Business Roundtable and the University of Tennessee's Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.
Former U.S. Sen. Baker, R-Tenn., was scheduled to attend Tuesday night's forum but could not due to a minor illness.
E-mail Matt Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org