Still another opportunity for political civility

A year ago, we opined in this space that the end of the Clinton administration and the start of the Bush administration provided an opportunity for a return to civility in Washington. We urged Republicans and Democrats to tone down partisan rhetoric in favor of meaningful debate on the many substantial issues awaiting every branch of the federal government.

At the same time, the sharpness of much of the political verbiage had already been dulled in Missouri in the somber days that followed the untimely death of Mel Carnahan, a two-term governor who was elected posthumously to be one of the state's U.S. senators.

There was, it seemed a year ago, an opportunity for national and local politicians to disagree on the merits of issues, to agree on fundamental points that were beneficial to Americans and to compromise in ways that would signal a return to politics by consensus.

Of course, that was a lot to hope for, even in a nation that was sorely bruised by repeated attacks from every political direction -- attacks designed to sway opinion polls, attacks that diverted the attention of those who govern from their fundamental obligation to benefit society.

And so gallons of ink were spilled on newsprint and thousands of minutes of broadcast airtime were frittered away in chronicling the loudest political shouts, the most outrageous partisan attacks and the barbs of party clamoring -- all at the expense of any substantial exchange of useful information.

Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In one of its finest hours, this nation drew together in common sorrow and determined resolution to thwart the maniacal actions of those who would change the world by killing the innocent.

For a few weeks, the shrillness of partisan haggling seemed disrespectful, out of place and inappropriate. Politicians of every stripe rallied around respect, dignity and resolute action.

In this new year, it seems the unity of America is a bubble that becomes more fragile with every day that passes since the attacks. Political bickering is quickly returning to its former level of shrillness. At the opening session of the Missouri Senate last week, the game plan of two senators of the minority party to disrupt the legislative goals of the majority party received as much press as the prevailing cooperative attitude on both sides of the aisle. And in Washington, critical programs and appointments are once again victims of stalling tactics designed not to help Americans, but to give little but political advantage.

Once again we have an opportunity for political civility. Will it be missed again? Or can we hope that those who govern will place a higher premium on persuasion and compromise than headlines and sound bites?