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Business Casual: Lowering the Bar

I was covering a fairly raucous city council meeting in a small California community a few years ago at which two of the members were at odds. At a critical moment in the debate, one called the other a “horse’s patoot.”

There was an audible gasp in council chambers, and I was among those gasping. I hadn’t realized you could say that sort of thing in a public meeting. (Not that I knew for sure what a horse’s patoot actually was – although I guessed correctly it was an anatomical reference denoting the horse’s rear end.)

It was actually kind of funny, although I don’t recall anyone laughing out loud. But it was also a pretty strong statement for that time and place, and it played havoc with the notion of kindly citizen-legislators getting together to pass a few ordinances and play nice.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2015 when the Republican candidate Donald Trump, who never served in the military and apparently got several draft deferments, attacked Sen. John McCain, a war hero, and dismissed the senator’s time as a POW by saying he preferred those who weren’t captured. I believe there was an audible gasp then – or maybe it was just mine. It had not occurred to me that a serious candidate for the country’s highest office could or would say something like that in public. This time there was no underlying note of humor.

I felt a little like I did the first time I saw a cockroach fly: I simply didn’t know it was possible.

A year later, sadly, such outrageous statements have become standard fare on the evening news, on social media and in print coverage of the presidential campaign.

We have heard Trump insult women repeatedly and call Mexican immigrants rapists. We watched him mock a disabled reporter and all but encourage violence at his rallies.

We also saw him win primary after primary. He’s bragged that he seems unable to do anything wrong, nothing that would discourage his fan base. He was occasionally challenged, but generally unfazed.

Then came his assertion that an Indiana-born judge of Mexican ancestry could not preside fairly in civil proceedings against Trump University, which is being sued for fraud. That one finally riled a few folks who had managed to overlook his earlier statements. One senator, Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, pulled his endorsement. Mitch McConnell chastised him. So did Newt Gingrich and David Perdue.

Trump’s response was that his remarks had been “misconstrued,” as though there were any other way to construe racism. Still, he remains the presumptive GOP nominee.

The 2016 election is likely to have far-reaching effects – on future elections, major political parties, the presidential nominating process, the primary system and the way candidates present themselves.

I’m wondering if it’s too much to hope that the name-calling genie could be put back in the bottle. It’s not that political-speak and campaign rhetoric have been uniformly high-minded, but there was usually the sense of what an old football-playing editor of mine likes to call “going after the ball, not the player.”

And there was typically the feeling that somewhere in there, buried beneath the exaggerations and the distortions and the bloviations, there might be some genuine conviction, a principle or two at stake, a desire to do some good.

Beyond the slogans and the boilerplate, we might get to some substance.

Apart from the insult to an animal, calling someone a horse’s patoot seems almost eloquent in contrast to scatter-shot insult hurling.

I’m not the first to observe that this year’s campaign has taken on many of the trappings of reality shows. But governing – at any level – is hard work, not entertainment. It’s often tedious, rarely glamorous. Ask your legislators how much time they spend reading, studying, meeting with constituents and paying attention to the details of office-holding that take place behind the scenes.

Ask your county commission chair how many hours he or she spends dealing with everything from potholes to property tax assessments to services for seniors.

It’s serious business and demands serious-minded people. I do find it hopeful that none of Trump’s opponents in his own party or among the Democrats adopted his tactics. I hope that bodes well for future elections.

Enough with the flying cockroaches. We could use more worker bees.

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