SPRINGFIELD – Politics never has been a place for the thin-skinned, but today, candidates are more likely to face personal attacks than any time in recent history.
Instead of criticizing a candidate’s voting record or stand on issues, politicians are ridiculing things like looks, physical disability or speech.
I was thinking about that recently when former Vice President Joe Biden spoke of overcoming a childhood stutter, and former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted, ““I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I hhhave absolutely no idea what Biden is talking about.”
What kind of person makes fun of a stutter?
I asked Mike Lawrence, who was once press secretary for former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, for his thoughts.
“It just shows a lack of decency for a person to ridicule a challenge that another person has faced,” he said.
Lawrence, who lives in Springfield, was born with a cleft pallet that was not surgically corrected until he was 22.
“All the way through childhood and college, I lived with it,” he said. “Kids made fun of me because of the way I talked. I worked hard to speak distinctly.”
And he overcame that challenge to become the spokesperson for a sitting governor. That’s an incredible accomplishment in anyone’s life.
“I always felt bad that neither of my parents lived long enough to see me become press secretary – after overcoming the challenge of a cleft pallet.”
A recent article in “The Atlantic” explored whether any remnants of Biden’s stutter emerged during the Democratic debates. In the article, Biden described the ways both students and teachers mocked him for his speech as a child, and the ways he’d practice passages from literature in the mirror at night to work on speaking fluidly.
To my way of thinking, those are accomplishments to be extolled. After all, isn’t this supposed to be the land of opportunity?
But why are personal attacks becoming more commonplace?
Former Peoria Congressman Ray LaHood says there has been a breakdown in political civility.
“Republicans have moved further to the right, and Democrats have moved further to the left, and there is less of a desire to work together in a bipartisan manner,” he said.
But it goes beyond the polarization of the political parties, he said. The advent of social media has contributed to making political discourse coarser.
“I think Facebook and other social media has contributed to the ability of people to say things that would never otherwise be said of a person. … President Trump sends out degrading tweets about persons of the other party – and sometimes his own party.”
It’s worth noting that LaHood is a Republican leveling this criticism of a president of his own party.
It’s worth noting that both Republicans and Democrats bear responsibility for this breakdown in political comity.
Sanders herself has been branded by commentators as “Miss Piggy.” Her weight and looks have been disparaged. Criticize what she says, not how she looks, folks.
Is this the new normal? Will personal attacks become an accepted part of political discourse?
I sure hope not. But what can we as voters do?
The most obvious thing is not to reward candidates who behave this way. (They do it because they think it helps them at the polls; they’ll stop if voters withhold their support.)
Schools have made it a mission to fight bullying. And I’m glad. But it’s a hard lesson to teach when our youngsters see adults electing bullies.
We deserve better, and they certainly do.
Perhaps Biden exhibited the best response to a personal attack when he responded this way:
“I’ve worked my whole life to overcome a stutter. And it’s my great honor to mentor kids who have experienced the same. It’s called empathy. Look it up.”
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and freelance reporter His email address is ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.