Conduct Unbecoming

When President Abraham Lincoln stated his plans to bind the nation’s wounds in the period after the Civil War, he proposed a formula that has reverberated through the ages: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” 

In 1974, after Richard Nixon resigned as president to avoid certain impeachment and removal from office, Gerald Ford told the American people, “Our long national nightmare is over.” With a soothing and reassuring demeanor, the new president struck just the right tone to start an urgently needed healing process.

Sadly, when such healing language was desperately needed last week, just the opposite tone prevailed in Washington, on all sides. Instead, the attitude was charity toward none, malice for all, a stance that is truly conduct unbecoming from elected officials whose main concern should be moving forward on the nation’s many problems, not rubbing salt into fresh wounds.

After the predetermined acquittal of President Donald Trump on two charges of impeachment, it was probably too much to expect that both sides would dial back the rhetoric. But they didn’t have to use their words and actions to throw gasoline on the embers.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did the nation and herself no favors by theatrically ripping up her copy of Trump’s State of the Union address after the president finished speaking Feb. 4. No one could doubt her distaste for what Trump had to say, but she did not have to give in to her emotions and show such blatant disrespect.

Two days later, after his acquittal, Trump took the nation farther down the road of polarization. First, he politicized the traditional National Prayer Breakfast by brandishing front pages that trumpeted his victory. Then, he went to the White House, where he delivered a lengthy stream-of-consciousness talk punctuated with words like “evil” and “sleazebag” and “scum” and a scatological term we won’t reprint here.

Compare that sad performance with the brief statement delivered by Bill Clinton after he was acquitted in 1999. He said he was “profoundly sorry” for what he had said and done that led to his impeachment and for the “great burden” his behavior imposed on Congress and the American people. He asked everyone to rededicate themselves to serving the nation and building the future, concluding:

“This can be, and this must be, a time of reconciliation and renewal for America.”

Clinton’s humility was a stark contrast with the bravado that Trump demonstrated in his rallylike appearance. Trump missed a perfect opportunity to strike a conciliatory tone; instead, what he said only made Washington and the nation more bitterly divided. 

He blasted critics such as Republican U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who had taken a principled stance against Trump’s excesses, and he later carried out vindictive purges of veteran diplomats and security advisers whose testimony had displeased him. 

Of local interest, Trump singled out many of his fervent supporters, including Missouri’s freshman senator, Josh Hawley, praising him by saying, “You were right from the beginning.”  

When Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she was going to vote against Trump’s conviction, she added that she thought the president had learned his lesson from the impeachment experience and would dial back his divisive rhetoric and behavior. But she later admitted that her thoughts were merely “aspirational” and she had no assurances from the White House that anything would change. 

Trump’s post-impeachment demeanor showed that Collins’ thoughts were not only aspirational but delusional. With nothing like the specter of punishment to stop him, the president’s opponents can rightly worry about how much worse relationships in Washington will get from now on.

On the stump, former Vice President Joe Biden sometimes asks whether Trump supporters would really like their children to grow up to be just like the president. The answer to that question would say a lot about what Americans want the political climate in this nation to be.

Here’s hoping that as the election approaches, a more measured climate can take hold. This highly destructive partisan language and behavior needs to stop before the fabric of our government suffers irreversible corrosive effects. 

Both parties claim to be willing to work together on prescription drug prices, adequate health care, the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and a host of other pressing problems, not the least of which is the poisoned political climate. 

It’s time to stop the acrimony and hostility and get to work, to treat each other with respect and cooperation — with charity, not malice.