Good Night, Mrs. Cleaver

John J. Hopkins Oct. 23, 2010, 3:32am

America's Mom died last Saturday. Barbara Billingley, the actress whose career-defining role as June Cleaver made her the model matriarch for the nation, passed away at age 94.

She was obviously not an actual person, but for those of us who grew up watching the story of the Cleaver family on television, the Beaver's mother was just as real as the down the street neighbor. She was perhaps an unrealistic example of 1950s era motherhood and femininity, but nevertheless, a comforting voice of soothing relief as she poured a glass of milk from the pitcher, always tastefully and modestly dressed in pearls, high heels and a dress.

Even though it was a time when corporal punishment was an accepted form of parental discipline, she always used a few well chosen words of rebuke to get across the point that shame could inflict pain beyond the power of the paddle. Above all else, she represented the essence of propriety, decorum and civility, the notion that within the confines of a civilized society, there are indeed lines that are not to be crossed.

I have been thinking about the idealized Mrs. Cleaver, and wondering what she would think of the status of political discourse in the world's greatest democracy. As we thankfully come to the end of another election cycle, it is a safe assumption that she would have been appalled by the current state of affairs. Bile-driven personal attacks, once the outrageous rarity, have become the norm.

More often than not, the disgusted voter is left with only the choice between two equally foul alternatives, each one's persona being formed by the negative attacks of the opponent. The ability to disagree without being disagreeable has truly become a lost art, abandoned to the depths of history as but another sign of a culture in decline, losing the sense of mutual respect.

Elementary political science tells the reason for negative ads - they work. Even though much maligned, ads which ignore the issues choosing instead to focus on the character flaws of an opponent, are effective because they are tolerated. They are tolerated because of a lack of a common sense of decency, a common sense of recognized boundaries and shared values.

In the name of tolerance - normally a most sincere virtue - we tolerate indiscriminate cell phone use and foul language in public, collectively brought down to the lowest common denominator. We have indeed reaped that which has been sown. But as in all problems, the solution lies clear, if most difficult.

Rather than to simply wish a "plague on both houses," we must do more. We must demand better. We must become intolerant. Vile political ads which serve only to debase rather than uplift are unfortunately a reflection of a culture where manners- the outward demonstration of a sense of respect for your fellow man - are an endangered species.

The glorification of the deviant, the tolerance of the rude, all serve to devalue any sense of shared values, the end result being the slow death of the polite aspects of life. If everything is allowed, then nothing is off limits, the tone of important dialogue left to virtually non-existent self restraint. But it does not have to be this way.

"We do not have Red states, or Blue states, but a United States."

The author of such an optimistically uplifting message burst on the scene in 2004 with the promise of a Nation moved by a shared purpose. He now occupies the White House in a land more bitterly divided than ever. If current polls prove correct, in a little more than a week America will once again be governed by committee.

With Republicans on Capital Hill and a Democrat President, the mutual challenge will be to shake off the baser instincts of power - to reward your friends and punish your enemies - and to look for common ground, to see how the public good is best served. Ideological fights can be intense without being personal. An opponent's polices and objectives can be questioned, but not their character.

The model exists in recent history. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, completely opposed to the agenda of President Ronald Reagan, would still enjoy a drink of Irish whiskey with his old friend come 5:00 and the close of business. In the best interest of the country, this example deserves imitation by the President and the soon to be new Speaker Boehner. Perhaps the whiskey is optional.

The time of June Cleaver was simpler, clearer, in some ways better. While progress on many fronts cannot be retracted, a return to a time of civility, of shared respect and politeness is a way to reign in the beast that all seem to deplore but yet ignore. It begins, as do all things in the hearts of us all. If it is desired, it can be.

Be not afraid.

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