George W. Bush and Bill Clinton urge civility — but how do we get there from here?

Limousines carrying two former presidents arrive in Salt Lake City.

Mitt Romney had no sooner announced his choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate last weekend when my inbox started to fill.

There wasn’t a surprise to be found.

Utah’s Democratic party said “…Utah seniors must now prepare a plan to deal with the elimination of Medicare as we know it.”

The office of House Speaker John Boehner said Ryan would “Help Mitt Romney get America’s economy moving again.”

Gay groups were opposed. Conservatives were in favor. Everyone spoke in generalities or stereotypes. Ho hum.

Scientific American blogger John Horgan said earlier this year that “Being predictable is a much worse sin for a columnist than being wrong.” That echoes something I’ve long believed, and even though we’re not talking about columnists here necessarily, the same thing applies to everyone in the political arena.  Unless you can surprise me with some original and independent thought, you might as well go away.

Which brings me to a visit to Utah this week by former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

I would venture to guess many Americans would be surprised to find these guys hanging around together, or even joking with each other. We’ve grown somewhat used to seeing Clinton with the first President Bush, but W?

The Deseret News quoted Clinton as joking about W during this visit by saying, “I like him, and I love his father.” To which Bush said with exaggerated emphasis, “Oh, he likes me and loves my father.”

His father, of course, was in a bitter race against Clinton a mere 20 years ago, and Clinton’s eight years in office were anything but peaceful politically. Remember the impeachment trial?

Politics is a tough business, and apparently a lot of voters take the toughness part more to heart than do the candidates. Ultimately, the electorate should make decisions based on political platforms and personal qualifications. But too many people today don’t feel comfortable unless they can demonize the one they don’t support.

Bush and Clinton were in town to call for greater civility in campaigns. A lot of folks, myself included, can agree with that. The question is how do we get there?

For one thing, we can start by having everyone vow to do something politically unpredictable each week.

Clinton practically caused a political earthquake earlier this year when he made a positive comment about Romney during a CNN interview. Doing so didn’t diminish his support for Barack Obama’s re-election, but Clinton told a Salt Lake audience his pro-Obama statements were drowned out in the media by his compliment toward Romney.

“The test is not the arguments you make. The test is whether you’re badmouthing somebody,” he said.

He also said 24-hour political coverage has put Americans in “a constant state of anxiety-ridden attend deficit disorder.”

When I taught an editorial writing class at Brigham Young University a few years ago, I used to give my students a hot-button topic, such as abortion or the Bush-era tax cuts, and require them to write a persuasive piece that took the opposite point of view than the one they personally held.

I did this a week after letting them write how they really felt on the same topic, just to keep everyone honest.

To this day I have former students talk to me about that assignment. For many, it was an eye-opening venture into a world previously unexplored, and it led them to see their ideological opponents as actual human beings with noble, albeit different, motives.

We can’t assign all Americans write such an essay. That’s too bad. But the mere fact of seeing two former presidents act as friends when they were, and remain, political foes has to have some positive effect.

About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.

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