The 1 Thing Jeb Can Teach Us, Even in Defeat
Even months after his withdrawal from the 2016 primary race, Jeb Bush has something to teach us: that a leader should possess a full wealth of conviction, but should express his convictions in ways that are not uncivil, unfair, and otherwise demeaning to our country’s citizens and to fellow candidates. While a candidate might stand to benefit in the short-term by rude and mean-spirited behavior, neither he nor the country stand to benefit in the long term.
This lesson is especially helpful in the midst of a 2016 election cycle in which incivility is on full display in the presidential debates, on the talk shows, and in social media.
Not that American politics has until now been characterized by civil speech and behavior. It hasn’t. Jimmy Carter, himself often on the receiving end of uncivil speech, once remarked that he was happy to be retired from the Presidency because, “My esteem in this country has gone up substantially. It is much nicer now that when people wave at me, they use all their fingers.” Similarly, Lyndon Johnson once noted, “Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm. There’s nothing to do but stand there and take it.”
So our national public square has always had its moments of incivility, but recently those moments seem to be strung together without interruption. Consider the vulgar, dehumanizing, and even hateful speech on display in the comment section of political blogs. Consider the “replies” to the Twitter feed of a politician or pundit.
More significantly, however, consider the presidential debates. Republican candidate Donald Trump appears to have staked the success of his candidacy upon his ability to mock and demean immigrants, Muslims, Democrats, television commentators, war heroes, journalists, and his fellow Republican presidential candidates.
The early debate exchanges between Trump and Jeb Bush were especially illuminating. Trump easily rattled Jeb, primarily because he was uncivil toward Jeb, and debate and television audiences delighted in the incivility. When Bush would try to make the case for a point of public policy, Trump would respond by calling him a loser or mocking him for being down in the polls, before going on to insult the other candidates and demean various segments of the American population.
One commentator sympathized with Jeb by comparing him to the father of the bride, and Donald to a belligerent drunk who’s crashed the wedding party. What is Jeb to do when the debate audience doesn’t “police” Trump’s behavior, but instead applauds the demeaning language and behavior?
Not that Trump saved his incivility for Jeb, or limited it to the debates. For those Americans with a taste for incivility, Trump’s television interviews and campaign speeches offered rich and sumptuous fare. He called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and Megyn Kelly a “bimbo.” He made fun of Sen. John McCain for being taken prisoner of war in Vietnam. He bragged about his sexual exploits and compared an opponent to a child molester.
Trump is the frontrunner because he took on “the mantle of anger,” and his angry supporters are compelled. Not that he is actually angry. Nobody is sure. His ascendancy in the polls rests upon a very particular set of skills, skills he has acquired over a long career as a real estate mogul and reality-TV star: he is an entertainer. And he is entertaining an angry portion of the electorate with his public incivility.
But incivility is unbefitting any citizen who wants the best for his or her country, and certainly is unbefitting for a person aspiring to the highest post of the land. The person who will serve as our next President will serve officially as the commander-in-chief, but unofficially as the most visible public role model for Americans and for the global community.
Civility is not softness. Nothing could be further from the truth. To be civil is to have the strength to show respect and goodwill toward our fellow citizens and presidential candidates even—and especially—when we disagree with them or dislike them.
This is the lesson Jeb has taught us over the past year, and even as he gave his gracious concession speech after the South Carolina primaries. We Americans—especially those of us who call ourselves evangelicals—should heed the lesson. We should police our speech and demeanor in our blogposts, on our Twitter feeds, and in our coffee shop conversations. And we should expect our politicians to do the same in their stump speeches and on the national debate stage.