Something very interesting happened in Kentucky this weekend: Senate candidate Rand Paul refused to shake hands with his opponent Jack Conway after their debate.
This wasn't just a fit of pique. In recent attack ads, Conway went somewhere that American politicians themselves very rarely go although their proxies often do: he attacked Paul's personal religious beliefs in stark terms.
|Some things are just
"Why was Rand Paul a member of a secret society that calls the Holy Bible a hoax?" asks the ad. "Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up. Tell her to bow down before a false idol and say his God was Aqua Buddha?"
The Conway ad in question is referring to some hijinks Paul got up to as a college kid. Considering that President Clinton smoked marijuana in college (but didn't inhale), and Obama freely admits doing a lot more than that, one might wonder "who cares?"
Conway clearly thinks that Kentucky does - after all, it is a fairly religious state and that religion ain't Buddhism. If he could convince Kentucky voters that Paul is some robe-wearing pagan, it might possibly drag him across the finish line in the lead, which at this point looks unlikely.
This image is, however, blatantly false. Whatever indecorous things Paul did in college, as most college kids do, they weren't illegal, and it was a long time ago. Today he is a member in good standing of The Presbyterian Church of Bowling Green - and for those feminists who care about such things, Presbyterians allow women deacons and Mrs. Paul is one.
No, the scurrilous ad, decried even by Conway's fellow Democrats, was a dying gasp from a drowning campaign. Paul's action in the debate is of much more relevance, because it illustrates something we have forgotten in modern society:
Gentlemen are not always gentle, and certainly not to enemies who fight dirty.
For many decades now, the media has complained about how political civility is dying. We've detailed how this really isn't true - political campaigns of bygone eras were far worse and conducted far more crudely even than we see today - but the underlying assumption is that conflict is a bad thing and that good statesmen are always willing to reach across the aisle for the greater good.
Sometimes bipartisanship is possible and necessary. The Republicans bitterly opposed FDR's New Deal (to little effect), but when it came to fighting Hitler they supported Roosevelt foursquare. Clinton and the Republicans fought fiercely over Hillarycare, but were able to agree on welfare reform and other cuts that led to a brief government surplus.
Civility only works when you are dealing with a generally honorable person with whom you have fundamental disagreements but also fundamental agreements as well. Bill Clinton was a famous liar in his personal life, but generally kept his word politically as long as you read the fine print with great care. The Republicans understood that Roosevelt's vision for America was vastly different from their own, but they never doubted his absolute commitment to defending America from foreign invaders.
When you are dealing with someone who can reach an agreement with you and turn around the next day and tear it up, there's really no room for either civility or negotiation. When your opponent has not the slightest concern for the truth, there's no reason to treat him or her with customary courtesy.
In fact, shaking hands with someone who is publicly slandering you merely demeans your own manliness and gives him credence he does not deserve.
Joe Wilson was perhaps the first of this generation of Republicans to realize that rules of civility don't extend to scoundrels. When President Obama stood before the nation and told open, shameless lies, Wilson couldn't contain himself; he had to at least get it on record that the Presidents statements were lies. Naturally, he was assailed by the media, but the American people applauded his firm defense of truth and his campaign contributions shot up.
More recently, we've seen even the media stop and stare at Obama's utterly unfounded attack on the Chamber of Commerce, which represents American small business. Should the head of the Chamber of Commerce, having just been slandered before all America, be expected to shake Obama's hand?
Sometimes we talk about the need to respect the office if not the man. Most conservatives admitted that they'd shake Clinton's hand despite concerns about where that hand had recently been. Conservatives don't generally go in for the public disrespect and dung-throwing which were endemic on the left during the Bush years, nor should they.
As important as respect for high office is - under no circumstances should anyone consider a physical assault on Obama - there comes a time when normal courtesy merely allows the disreputable to masquerade as something better than they are. We have reached that point.
Rand Paul has demonstrated the proper attitude towards the liars, frauds, and thieves that presume to rule over us: nothing aggressive, nothing bloody, but powerful symbolism of our contempt for their behavior. Rand Paul is a gentleman; Jack Conway and his fellows, anything but.