WASHINGTON This is the perfect time of year to talk about comity (not comedy!) and where we re headed.
The bright hope of new graduates couples with the solemnity and majesty of Memorial Day in a heady mix of hope and pride tempered by what is going on in Washington.
Yes, you knew that was coming the current dearth of chivalry, gallantry, deference, respect, graciousness, civility, mannerliness, gentility, diplomacy, benevolence, affability, and good humor in the seat of the federal government and beyond. Memorial Day weekend has always been special in our family. For many years we dressed up in Civil War uniforms of both the South and the North to march in memorial parades, playing our musical instruments and then listening to speeches in cemeteries about fallen heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
The Civil War, which begat Memorial Day, was our nation at its worst and its best. While there were many causes for the war, slavery was at its heart. Many believed the nation could not and should not survive. It did, at a wrenching cost.
A few weeks ago I heard my brother, an Army general, give a commencement address to a new generation of soldiers. It had all the hallmarks of a rousing speech: inspiring, laugh-out-loud funny, thoughtful, and short. Among the nuggets of wisdom he scattered about was a special plea. He asked the smart-as-a-whip class to be kind to each other.
I ve been thinking about that as I prowled the halls of Congress and traveled in President Bush s motorcade. I thought about it as I listened to lawmakers berate the President and as he berated them in turn. I thought about it during emotional debate in Congress, listening to patients with dreadful diseases such as cancer, Parkinson s, and diabetes, and spinal cord injuries, plead for the hope of federally funded embryonic stem cell research. I thought about it as I walked a few feet away and listened to tearful parents who adopted embryos who weren t discarded but became beloved children. I thought about it as I watched Mr. Bush insist that his opposition to new stem-cell lines is the only moral position. A large measure of the combativeness and hostility that has built to combustible levels in Washington comes from this country s uncertainty about life: what it is, when it begins, when it ends. That s a noble debate, as was the debate over who had the right to freedom back in the 1860s.
But today s debate has escalated to vitriolic national arguments about the most delicate and wrenching of subjects, discussions many of us would shy away from with family or friends. The tragic story of a young woman in Florida became fodder for hate. Scared young girls walking into clinics are pelted with scorn. Heartbroken parents whose children suffer unimaginably are called baby killers for pleading for research. Pregnant, unwed girls are too casually steered into abortions. Inevitably, science will solve many of our dilemmas, and today s debates will morph into others. In vitro fertilization was once considered an appalling manipulation of life; now it is routine and has given happiness and life to many (and great wealth to others). But there always will be ethical problems and moral quandaries because of the march of science. If we let our right-wing vs. left-wing squabbling continue to degenerate into nonproductive, destructive, vituperative rancor, all our debates will be poisoned.
There will be no difference between a Senate debate and a cable network screamfest. We will not fight another civil war with guns; we will fight one using venom. The rest of the world s growing disgust at us will be merited. Our democracy will no longer be a model for others. I thought about this as I watched Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio) struggle not to break into tears as he spoke on the floor of the Senate about his fear for the future of America s image abroad. Our family has just sent a young son into the military overseas and will attend another s graduation this weekend.
I know I am thinking about what kind of society we are grooming them for as we honor our dead, remember our past, prepare for summer s delights, celebrate with our graduates, and keep our fingers crossed that the President and the lawmakers will get their acts together, perhaps even act kindly toward each other.