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Published: Sunday, 10/31/2004

Stop the shouting so our voices can be heard

MAYBE it's my age, or maybe it's the age, but there's something about this political campaign that leaves me cold - cold and troubled.

This may be the most important election since World War II. For the first time since 1980, there is a fundamental difference in how the competing candidates see the world, and in how they will relate to the world. No one doubts how either man would approach a Supreme Court vacancy, an international crisis, or the annual federal budget. There is every indication that turnout will surpass the 1992 bump, maybe even approach the levels of 1960.

So why the uneasiness?

Part of it is the times. These are anxious days, with terrorist threats in the air, with economic uneasiness everywhere, with uncertainty pervasive. Nobody knows what kind of world we will leave our children, except for the certainty that it will be more uncertain, and also more dangerous.

Part of it, too, is the relentless negativism. It grows out of the notion that these two political figures have so little self-confidence that their campaigns depend on proving that the other guy is actually worse than they are, has less dependable judgment, is possessed of less sound values, is untrustworthy in a crisis or even alone in a negotiating session with the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

But none of that really is all that unusual. We've had hard times before, and if you don't believe it, ask someone in your family or on your block what the world felt like in 1942, when the United States had only the smoking remnants of a Navy and a tiny Army to take against Japan and Germany and the real Axis of evil. We've worried before about the dangers the future holds, too, and it would be well to remember just how frightening another October seemed, 42 years ago, when the Soviet missiles were within striking distance of Miami and the nation tossed in fear at night.

We've had negative campaigns before, too, and in truth there is something vaguely entertaining about them, else we would not recount the slurs against Grover Cleveland, or replay the Lyndon Johnson dandelion ad, with such glee. After his 1964 debacle, Sen. Barry Goldwater said he would have been so much happier to have run against John F. Kennedy than against LBJ. Said Goldwater: "I could tell him what I felt about his proposals. 'That's no good, Jack,' I would say, or 'That part is OK. That's fine.' And he'd listen. He would have debated me. It would have been good for the campaign. It would have been a good campaign."

That didn't happen in 1964 and it didn't happen 40 years later. But that's not the worst of it.

No, what is really troubling this time is the political atmosphere. It's not only the candidates who are shouting. We're shouting at each other again.

We last shouted like this in the 1960s, which is a whole lot more fun to remember - the music, the passion, the sexual revolution - than it was to live through. There was a divisive war then, and galloping social change, and the feeling, shared by so many, that America was coming undone or, worse, was being done in by too much liberty, or by too much law and order. So bad was it that Richard Nixon, who isn't quoted approvingly much anymore, inserted a poignant sentence into the last presidential inaugural address of the decade:

"We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another, until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices."

It's so much easier to shout now, because in e-mail and over the Internet every whisper is a shout. For a decade I wrote column for The Boston Globe, and on a particularly controversial subject I have been known to argue, for example, that Gerald Ford wasn't a doofus, or that Michael Dukakis wasn't a communist, I might get one or two reproachful notes, and most of the time they were of the I respectfully submit, Mr. Shribman, sir, that you may be mistaken variety.

These days, on the least controversial subjects, I get three or four dozen notes, many of which are diatribes that can be distilled into (and I am not making these up) this: You are so evil, so sick and so wrong about the Iraq war that it is a disgrace that you have children and You are a shameless propagandist for the criminal idiot who is president and You are a lazy elitist liberal charlatan Kerry lover. OK, maybe the lazy part isn't all wrong, or so my wife says, particularly on the days I'm supposed to be doing the weeding.

I have no proof for this, but I believe that the swiftness and anonymity of the Internet makes it easy for people to say online what they would never say to your face, which you might think would produce refreshing honesty but in my experience produces only bile. I try to pick the nastiest note of the day and then call up its author. The person on the other end of the phone almost always says: I didn't really mean to come on so strong.

Strong? You wanted to take my kids away from me.

This is a time of peril and passion. The President's supporters are arguing that he is a man of destiny and courage and that his opponent is an opportunist with a weak character.

Sen. John F. Kerry's supporters are arguing that their candidate is unusually well-prepared for leadership and that the President is ill-prepared for this time of testing. Pugilists on both side believe their rivals are dangerous extremists.

This is one of those situations, and it's hard to imagine another, where everybody is wrong and Richard Nixon is right.

We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another - until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.



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