GREG MORRIS: Words matter, actions matter, civility matters

Keywords Commentary

In watching the first presidential debate this week, I got exactly what I was expecting. But still, it was exhausting and extremely painful to watch.

I predict that, whatever side of the political aisle a person is on, they came out of the debate of the same opinion they had going in. It would be hard to change hearts and minds in a brawl like that.

And while President Trump will certainly be the main focus of the media analysis, there’s an endless supply of bad behavior and incivility to go around in Washington.

I’ll leave the rest of the debate analysis to others, as I’m going to focus on something I can control—my own actions. As personal inspiration, I’m turning to a story about presidential civility.

Benjamin Harrison was our nation’s 23rd president and served from 1889-1893. He is the only president elected from Indiana. Here’s a story from an issue of “The Statesman,” the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in-house publication. It was relevant a few years ago and seems even more relevant today:

“A Tale of Two Elections: Civility as a Strength”

“In the history of our great country, there have only been two presidents who met each other in the ring for two separate elections: Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland. They were to experience the best and worst of times—each discovering what it was to win and lose against each other. Their elections in 1888 and 1892 were no easy contests and were sharply waged by the parties and partisans of their time. But their experiences stand in sharp contrast to modern presidential elections. Humility was seen as a qualification for the presidency in the 19th century, and eagerness for the office a disqualification.

“In 1888, Harrison won the electoral vote, and Cleveland the popular vote, but Harrison was the clear winner. (Cleveland was the incumbent.) Although the Electoral College was at odds with the popular vote in a close race, both candidates remained silent. They let the pundits and scholars argue about the future of the voting system.

“And so, there was a peaceful transition of power on Inauguration Day, with Cleveland being very gracious to Harrison. The two men rode together in an open horse-drawn carriage to the Capitol and walked arm-in-arm to the platform. It was a rainy day and an original photo shows Cleveland holding an umbrella over Harrison during the inaugural address.

“Four years later, Harrison and Cleveland ran against each other again in 1892—a unique election with both men having lived in the White House.

“But it was complicated by shifting public opinion and First Lady Caroline Harrison’s lingering illness and untimely death. Under the circumstances, President Harrison refused to campaign for himself and Cleveland curtailed his public appearances out of respect.

“Harrison lost this time out, but like Cleveland four years prior, was gracious in defeat.

“Once again, the same two men rode in an open carriage to the Capitol and then walked out on the platform arm-in-arm.

“Although they shared a display of civility and mutual respect, the outward relationship belied some stark differences in political philosophy and policy. But Cleveland and Harrison were able to transcend these disagreements by showing courtesy to each other as statesmen. …

“Civility was not just a fashion to be worn in public, but a vital tradition Harrison and Cleveland were willing to embody to ensure a smooth transition of power and the preservation of the republic.”

Our words matter. Our actions matter. Civility matters. Let’s all lead by example.•

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Morris is publisher of IBJ. To comment email gmorris@ibj.com.

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