Midwest Voices

Paul Scianna: Constructive, civil politics benefit the U.S.

This 1963 photo released by the White House shows a teenage Bill Clinton shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden.
This 1963 photo released by the White House shows a teenage Bill Clinton shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden. The Associated Press

It was the summer of 1974. I was selected to represent my state at American Legion Boys Nation in Washington.

If you’re unfamiliar with Boys Nation, two delegates are chosen from each of the 49 Boys State programs to participate in a weeklong event to learn about our federal government. So for one week, I was a U.S. senator — without the lifelong privileges afforded thereof.

Traditionally these young “senators” are given a private tour of the White House and are received by the president. (You may recall images of a young Bill Clinton in the Rose Garden with President John Kennedy.)

Yet, it would not be the case for the Class of ’74. While it was the “best of times” for these bright-eyed high school seniors, it was the “worst of times” for President Richard Nixon. This was the summer of Watergate.

Nixon was engaged in a battle for his political life, and he was in San Clemente, Calif., recovering from an illness. So as we ended our tour, we walked past an empty Oval Office on our way to the Rose Garden.

During the week, I spent time with my representative — a young Trent Lott, who was a freshman Republican serving on the House Judiciary Committee, considering Articles of Impeachment against Nixon. I also shadowed Sen. John Stennis, a Democrat who chaired the Armed Services and Appropriations committees.

While walking the halls of Congress with Lott and Stennis that week (and months later during a Presidential Classroom for Young Americans), I witnessed friendly exchanges between members of both parties, including the likes of conservative Barry Goldwater and liberal Ted Kennedy. I heard personal conversations that reflected principled politics, not partisan bickering. I was not then (and am not now) naïve enough to believe there was no partisanship in play; yet, there was a guiding civility and a deep regard for the rule of law that’s lacking in today’s political environment.

It’s not the politics of our two-party system that concerns me. I welcome the healthy tension it creates. It is the people in both parties who have put personal or political gain before principled leadership.

And while Watergate demonstrated no one is above the law, we now have lawmakers who disregard the rule of law and members of our judicial and executive branches who are erroneously making law. This constant state of political bickering and unconstitutional behavior is destroying the foundation of our nation.

Perhaps this is what Abraham Lincoln foretold when he said: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Lincoln spoke these words 23 years before the Civil War, yet he recognized the dangers associated with a lack of “reverence for the Constitution and laws.” He also noted there were many law-abiding citizens who lived peaceably, worked hard to provide for and protect their families, and would “gladly” give their lives to defend America.

Yet all they had hoped and worked for was being threatened, and seeing nothing indicating a “change for the better,” they became “tired of, and disgusted with, a government that offers them no protection.”

If you did not know the context, you might mistake Lincoln’s remarks for an item from today’s news. As this election cycle reflects, the majority of Americans have “become tired of and disgusted with” our government.

And minus a “change for the better,” our current course may well result in, as Lincoln predicted, the suicidal death of America ... or at least America as we know it.

Paul Scianna of south Kansas City is a native of Mississippi and a marketing and communications executive. To reach him, send email to Midwest Voices at oped@kcstar.com.