After Rubio's 'Watergate,' a thirst for political civility

In this frame grab from video, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio takes a sip of water during his Republican response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo)

I think that there is a -- probably a liberal bias that exists within the media that is because of the medium in which it exists. I think that the majority of people working in it probably hold liberal viewpoints … People on the right are called racists and they're called things with an ease that I am uncomfortable with -- and homophobic and all those other things. And I think that that is absolutely something that they have a real right to be angry about and to feel that they have been vilified for those things. And I've been guilty of doing some of those things myself.”
- Jon Stewart (Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, 06/19/11) 


On Wednesday, MSNBC’s Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski was about to show the now infamous Marco Rubio water gaffe when token Republican hire Joe Scarborough begged her to stop. “Oh come on. You don’t need to show this. It’s a cheap shot,” Scarborough said, throwing his hands up in the air.

He wasn’t the only one. All over TV, Facebook, and through the blogosphere, newscasters, political pundits and regular Joes were saying enough is enough.

As a former political candidate, I know what it’s like to lose my voice and get a bug in my throat. As a medically obese person who has to use a CPAP to breathe at night, I know all too well what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night and have to hydrate so that I don’t choke.

Is this a laughing matter? Sure. Go ahead and laugh. But laugh just once. Beyond that is sick.

On her self-named show, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow reported on Rubio’s speech by playing a continuous loop of him reaching for water for over 7 minutes in a screen-inside-a-screen clip. Was that really necessary?

“I thought better of her. Her shallowness in this juvenile stuff is disheartening. This is what passes for political analysis? Bring back Dan Quayle,” quipped Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky on a Facebook thread.

I suppose, Stu, when Rachel Maddow doesn’t have quality content and it’s a slow news day, this is what she turns into – taking a non-story and futilely attempting to turn it into one. But Maddow wasn’t the only pundit that was petty. There’s plenty of blame to go around, whether it was Al Sharpton taking a swig from a gigantic Poland Spring jug or Wolf Blitzer absurdly asking whether Rubio’s clumsiness could be a “career ender.”

Bear in mind: These are not comics. These are serious TV hosts that are supposed to have some degree of professionalism.

What should have been a story was the content of Rubio’s and President Obama’s speeches, which, unfortunately, were both boring propaganda filled with just a few sprinkles of specifics on the minimum wage and gun violence.

But this so-called Watergate 2.0 episode highlights the lowlights that the media can go to in order to invent artificial issues. The news media owes it to the public to focus on the content – not the trivia – and they ought to be asking the tough questions.

And while we’re on the topic of civility, what about the name calling that’s getting worse and worse? Wasn’t the end of last cycle’s presidential election the signal of the official start of the “It’s Okay to Love Your Neighbor Again Month (regardless of their political party)?”

Guess not, as the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman feels it’s okay to say that “Rubio’s mind is zombie-infested.” When Krugman sinks to such lows, he is a lost cause for being taken seriously.

That’s the media. But what about the interactions among our elected officials? Can we expect them to ever return to even a small modicum of decency between each other?

I remember cringing when hearing Congressman Joe Wilson rudely screaming “you lie” during President Obama’s 2009 address to a joint session of Congress. More disturbing was that within 48 hours of Wilson’s outburst, he was able to raise over $200,000 toward his reelection bid.

Is it any wonder that there’s a civil war in Washington between the D’s and the R’s? What can be done to address this impasse? Can civility once again return to Washington? To find out, I asked the experts, beginning with arguably the most bipartisan of all – Philadelphia Republican City Councilman Dennis O’Brien. O’Brien made history in 2007 when he became the first and, to date, only minority-party Speaker in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives – earning the trust of both Republicans and the majority party Democrats. “The party has to do a better job at saying what we’re for and not focus so much on what we are against.”

That’s sage advice from a Republican who has won 16 consecutive general elections in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.

“People absorb half the information but all of the vitriol from one-sided media outlets. People need to let the phrase 'agree to disagree' have real meaning and the respect that comes with it," advised William Mellon, the Director of Industrial Relations for Eastern Montgomery County Local PA 2233, American Postal Workers Union AFL-CIO.

“Both parties need to see that they are equally responsible for the lack of civility. It is as unacceptable for Republicans to accuse Democrats of hating American values as it is for Democrats to accuse Republicans of a war on women,” said Joseph L Doherty, a lawyer at Kutak Rock and an East Falls resident.

Bruce L. Castor, Jr., a commissioner in Montgomery County and a potential candidate for Pennsylvania governor, also weighed in. "Until the press takes up its obligation to be a check on abuses of power, corruption will flourish, because people like me will get tired of banging their heads against the wall and leave. All that will be left, eventually, will be those who abuse their positions. If people worth a darn refuse to serve in office, only those not worth a darn will run the government. They win.”

Adrian Shanker, president of Equality Pennsylvania, was an alternate delegate for President Obama at the Democratic National Convention. Yet, Shanker’s gay rights organization has endorsed Republicans in the past. “There are issues of real importance to the LGBT community that are held hostage by partisan gridlock -- I think if most elected officials of either party make a concerted effort to consider each bill on its merits, and not on who has proposed it, then many commonsense reforms could be enacted.”

State Rep. Nick Miccarelli, who represents the 162nd District in Delaware County, says the public needs to hold people accountable for what they say. “Many politicians answer questions about policy by spewing rhetoric and talking points to avoid having to answer specific questions. Usually this comes in the form of blasting the other side. This is totally unproductive and causes further division between the two sides.”

Eighth Congressional District Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick struck a positive note: “For the most part, Members of Congress get along with each other. For example, I have a great relationship with Congressman (Bob) Brady, and I hope he feels the same way. Instead of beating each other up, we have a good relationship because we try to focus on getting things done. While I don’t agree with everything President Obama says, there was a handful of things President Obama said in the State of the Union speech that I agree with, like manufacturing. Let’s start working together on that to get things done.”

But the very best advice came from Fred Gusoff, who served as managing editor of the Northeast Times until earlier this month. Gusoff, who can be best described as a raging moderate with a rare gift of common sense, captured the angst that many of us feel. “If more people in both parties (but especially the GOP, these days), would lower the thermostat and level of vitriol a bit, we would feel like a much more civilized nation.”