Many of the people who called my office in 2010, when Congress was about to vote on the Affordable Care Act, and who told interns to perform a lonely and quite impossible form of sexual intercourse, now want respectful discourse? Those who stormed congressional town halls to interrupt, on cue, with jeers and howls now want Robert’s Rules of Order?
They hoisted middle fingers at me on the streets, but now they demand that Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) raise her pinky finger when sipping apéritifs at restaurants. Can you imagine! The officials who couldn’t bring themselves to immediately condemn neo-Nazi marchers chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville last August must now suffer having their meals interrupted in restaurants. How utterly gauche! Also, how stunningly hypocritical. You want the lowest forms of incivility from the suddenly civil? Here are two that I witnessed on the very same day.
On March 20, 2010, the Tea Party and its allies staged a massive protest on Capitol Hill to oppose the Affordable Care Act. I was sitting on an exterior balcony, just off the House floor, a civil, even tranquil place where members of Congress chat amiably without partisan theatrics. Thousands of protestors were on the lawn, waving flags and pumping fists. Capitol Police officers didn’t interfere with their First Amendment rights and, instead, stood by quietly and respectfully.
Then all of a sudden, one of the protestors turned his back to us, leaned forward, lowered his pants and, in the common parlance, mooned us. Perhaps he believed the First Amendment gave him the right to expose his pale, scrawny derrière. Maybe he misread the Constitution as pledging to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posteriors,” instead of “our posterity.” In any case, I accepted his public display as revealing not his body part but what he really was.
Even worse that day was that crowd’s treatment of Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). As Congressman Lewis crossed the street, the civil rights legend, whose skull was fractured in 1965 during a protest march in Selma, was called unspeakable racial epithets near the Capitol Dome. Congressman Cleaver was spit upon by a protester.
The response by the “polite” right? Fox News went into a full production defense of the act of spitting on Cleaver, analyzing the physics and trajectory of the saliva as if it was the magic bullet in the Kennedy assassination. The commentators parsed the difference between intentionally spitting or shouting a word that incidentally generates spit.
Look, I’m all for civility. I cofounded the House Center Aisle Caucus, which promotes civility and bipartisanship in Congress. I wish the country would stop its national frothing, take a deep collective breath, and calm down. I also wish our president would stop using Twitter like a poker in a lit fireplace, stoking so much anger and resentment.
But civility not only requires a higher standard, it excludes a double standard. The spitters and shouters now demand respect. In their Emily Post book of protest etiquette, mooning and cursing is acceptable as long as they target Democrats. Interrupting congressional town meetings is approved, but interrupting a White House official’s dinner is bad form.
On the new “red plate blue plate” divide, as David Axelrod calls it, I believe restaurant owners who ask Trump officials to leave the premises have it exactly wrong. Let them dine. Guide them to the most expensive items on the menu. Politely suggest a pricey dessert and after-dinner drinks. Then, after they pay the bill, let them know you’re donating the proceeds to Democrats who will oppose their agenda.
Then, thank them. Anything else would be, well, impolite.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is a novelist and author of the new book, “Big Guns,” a satire of the gun lobby. You can follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.