BETHLEHEM TWP.: John Glenn and Ralph Regula say they’ve never seen American politics so uncivil, but change is coming.
“I’m optimistic about things getting better because I think people will demand it,” Glenn said in a telephone interview. “I think people will only go so far with negative stuff.”
Regula had a similar comment at his Bethlehem Township home when a reporter repeated Glenn’s idea.
“I think so, yeah,” he said. “I think there will be people that are saying ‘a pox on both your houses.’ ”
Glenn, 91, and Regula, 87, have been part of Ohio politics for decades. Glenn, a Marine pilot in Korea and the first American to orbit Earth, served as a Democratic senator from 1974 to 1999. Regula, a farmer and country lawyer, was a Republican U.S. representative from 1973 to 2009.
“The negative ads have gotten so vicious that I’m sure they affect a lot of people,” Glenn said, “but the people they affect are probably mainly people who don’t take time to read up on the issues or take time to have their own thoughts in order about what is right and wrong in a particular case.”
The Regula Center for Public Service at Mount Union University, named after the congressman, has joined the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron, Cleveland State University, the Akron Beacon Journal and leaders in the community to conduct the Ohio Civility Project.
The effort attempts to help the community find ways to get past differences and focus on problem solving — both among themselves and in their expectations of elected officials.
Polling and focus groups conducted in the Akron area show that citizens are fed up with the polarization and inability to solve problems.
Ads are successful
Regula said there is a simple reason why politicians use attack ads.
“Attack ads work, that’s why people use them,” he said. “I don’t think Romney’s really, and maybe not even Obama, are really comfortable with that approach but that’s what it takes and I’m sure that people that advise both of them are saying ‘Hey, you’ve gotta go after the other guy, that’s what you have to do to win.”
He said the public prefers more respectful discourse.
“I think to some extent some of them enjoy an argumentative environment and so on,” he said, “but I think most people want their government to work for them.”
Regula says his career is an example of winning elections without getting nasty.
“I had 36 years and never lost an election,” he said. “And I was a moderate and I marched to my own drummer, so the answer is that you can. Now, you have to be sensitive to people. This telephone has always been in the book for 50 years, same number for 50 years, which means that anybody could call me at any time for 50 years.”
Glenn agreed that his experiences showed negative ads work and both legislators said it is unrealistic to expect politicians to sign a pledge vowing not to use them.
Both cited the “no new tax” pledge sponsored by lobbyist Grover Norquist as an example of the problems that come when lawmakers make a pledge.
At one time, 238 or 242 congressional Republicans had signed the pledge.
Regula said the pledge didn’t anticipate times like war or drought or other bad times when a government might need to raise taxes.
“That’s the reason I never signed Grover Norquist’s pledge. Most of my colleagues did,” he said. “I wouldn’t sign anybody’s pledge. I got elected and the only obligation I have is to the people who elected me.”
Glenn lamented the time when Washington politicians got together socially to develop relationships that proved valuable when compromises were needed.
He told stories of Trent Lott and other Republicans singing at parties, or Democrat Robert Byrd entertaining with the fiddle he learned to play as a youth. And he said there was not a dry eye in the room when Daniel Inouye, a disabled veteran who lost an arm in World War II, played Danny Boy with one hand on the piano.
“It’s easier to get together and talk about issues,” he said. “And that doesn’t mean they are compromising about principles, but it means they are willing to talk to each other and I don’t think they do much of that anymore.”
Winning at all costs
By contrast, Glenn cited Mitch McConnell, who said soon after President Obama took office that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Glenn said compromise is unlikely “if your main thrust, stated to the public, stated openly, is to defeat the other guy with no thought of working out a compromise that would be good for the people of your state or the people of the country.”
Incivility has always been a part of politics, but Regula said it hasn’t always been this bad.
He mentioned Tip O’Neill, a Democrat and speaker of the House, who was the second visitor in the hospital room when President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, was shot in 1981. (Nancy Reagan was first).
Regula said O’Neill knew how to get along with everybody.
He quoted O’Neill as telling others: “Ralph never votes with me, but I like him.”
Then Regula added: “You know, life is so much easier if you get along with people. Civility is something you should want to do. Because it oils the wheels of human relations and I can’t see why anybody would not want to be civil. You know Barack Obama, I don’t care much for his politics, but if I ever met him, I would be pleasant and so on.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or email@example.com. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.