Virginia Capitol Connections Summer 2022

Virginia Capitol Connections, Summer 2022 12 Civility in Politics By BERNARD HENDERSON Most people decry the lack of civility in today’s politics. By the end of campaign season, we are usually so disgusted with all candidates that we want to vote against all of them. I am not referring to advertising that promotes a candidate’s attributes and positions on issues, but to the advertising that denigrates a candidate and distorts a candidate’s position on an issue. This has become so pervasive that I have had numerous women and men tell me they will not consider running for office because they will not put themselves, their families and their businesses through nuclear-level character assassination. Nearly everyone says they dislike gutter-level politics, but the only reason why we have it is because it is effective. I am not trying to appear self-righteous. When I was actively engaged in politics, I did my share of attacks and criticism of opposition candidates’ veracity, integrity, and distortions of their positions. Perhaps confession is good for the soul and just because I have done these things does not mean that I cannot confess and try to repent. Personal attacks on political candidates are not new. Things were written and said about people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in their day that might be more scurrilous than what we see and hear today. In the days before present communications, it was easier to not have to account for things said. While we might not be able to be as outrageous and as unaccountable as they were a century or more ago, we are able to broadcast our attacks more widely, quickly and frequently through media that did not exist centuries ago. While few candidates are innocent of attacking their opponents’ character, integrity and distorting positions, the most vicious and frequent offenders are the “organizations” that allege that they are not affiliated with a candidate or political party. These entities are accountable to no one and are intentionally and structurally devoid of any pretense of truthfulness or other attributes associated with integrity; it is virtually impossible to know who is behind these “organizations” and sometimes it is just one rich fanatic who has more money than he or she deserves and who believes the ends justify the means. The First Amendment, specifically freedom of speech, gets in the way of effectively dealing with these creatures, but a responsible corollary to freedom of speech is the hearer’s responsibility to exercise intelligent discernment; and that ought to tell us to completely disregard the rantings and ravings of those who hide their identity behind fictitious or fallacious names. My grandfather was Sheriff of a rural county for a long time many years ago. His main campaign piece was a handout. At the bottom was the statement, “The reasons why my opponent is unfit for office are on the other side.” The other side said only, “This side is left intentionally blank.” I wouldn’t contend that this might work in a campaign today, but it sure is a nice thought —and “Big Daddy” never lost an election. We are experiencing a serious loss of local news coverage. Most newspapers and local television stations have virtually discontinued local political campaign coverage unless it is a story about a salacious scandal. When there is the rare story about a local race, it often seems to be more about which candidate is considered to be the likely winner or loser than what candidates are standing for. Voters have difficulty in obtaining reliable and comprehensive information, especially about local races, and are at the mercy of mass mailings, social media, and television and radio commercials. Candidates’ nights sponsored by civic organizations and neighborhood “meet and greet” gatherings are usually poorly advertised and sparsely attended. As our local news sources continue to dry-up, and voters are too busy or apathetic to attend events, we are less likely to have qualified local elected officials. Having written all this pessimistic stuff, I need to focus on something that too few people have the opportunity to see that has restored some of my faith in some of the leaders we have elected over the years, certainly not because of, but in spite of, these conditions. This arises out of two unfortunate events; the deaths of two former Governors of Virginia. Perhaps because I served as an appointed member of five gubernatorial administrations and my non-government career in funeral service, it has been my honor to assist families with funeral and memorial services of many sitting and retired public officials, including members of local governing bodies, General Assembly members, members of Congress, judges and justices and two former Governors of Virginia. Also, one of my most treasured mementoes, especially because I am a Democrat, is a personal letter of appreciation from former President George W. Bush for a very small thing I did after his father’s death. In assisting the families of Governors Gerald Baliles and Linwood Holton, I was in frequent contact with all living Virginia Governors. Regardless of political party, our Governors immediately and compassionately reached out to the Baliles and Holton families. Except for two instances when Governors were out of the country and two instances of Governors being ill, some of our Governors made very difficult changes in their schedules to be present for these services. The most fascinating and inspiring things were the times in the Governors’ waiting rooms prior to these services. In both cases, our former and current Governors and First Ladies were squeezed into relatively small rooms. These were Governors elected from different political parties and whose philosophies stretched across the spectrum; several of them had defeated or been defeated by one another for elective office. Nevertheless, all of them were exchanging hugs and handshakes and having cordial conversations about an infinite variety of things. These men and their wives clearly like one another and share a sacred common bond of serving Virginia. The most difficult and disappointing thing I had to do on both those occasions was to get them organized to go into the service. Just imagine having to tell a room full of Virginia’s Governors and First Ladies to be quiet, listen and do what I say; I have never had a more daunting or humbling task than that! But that’s not my point. My point, and the thing I want every Virginian to realize and appreciate, is that we are fortunate to have had gentlemen— in the most thorough and literal meaning of that word—as our Governors with vastly different philosophies who are genuinely cordial with one another. Even though they might strongly disagree with one another, there is mutual respect because they obviously acknowledge that their peers are honorable public servants who are led by clear conscience and driven by their desire to do the right thing. We can learn from their noble example. If we are confident of our position on any given issue, there is no need to question the motives or try to impugn the character of anyone who happens to be of a different view in order to justify our viewpoint. I’m going to try my best to do this, and I undoubtedly will occasionally fall short of it. I invite you to join me, even if you also might not always be successful. Bernard L. Henderson Jr. is President Emeritus and Funeral Celebrant for Woody and Nelson Funeral Homes. He served as senior deputy secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia from 2002 to 2010.V