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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Brewer's wagging finger at Obama reopens civility debate

Published: Saturday, Jan. 28 2012 7:00 a.m. MST

Whether it was a case of over-gesticulation, as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer says, or "not a big deal," as President Barack Obama says, a picture taken Wednesday of Brewer wagging her finger at Obama has caused a firestorm of backlash from supporters and detractors of Brewer, Obama and civility in politics.

The encounter between Brewer and Obama occurred Wednesday shortly after the president disembarked from Air Force One onto a tarmac in Phoenix, Ariz. Brewer gave Obama a hand-written note outlining the points she wished to discuss with him during his visit. The two exchanged words, with Obama taking umbrage with things Brewer wrote about him in her book, and then Obama walked away from Brewer.

Brewer has since said she meant no disrespect to Obama, and a White House press secretary said the brief encounter is getting too much attention, but the exchange has become a focal point for those who are critical of Obama and Brewer and political analysts who see the tiff as evidence of the erosion of courtesy in America's political scene.

Prominent evangelical Mark DeMoss created the Civility Project in 2009 to combat liberal attacks on the conservative position on marriage and conservative attacks on Obama, but he dissolved the effort after two years because only three members of Congress would pledge to be respectful and civil in their discourse. It is the responsibility of all people of faith to be civil, DeMoss said at BYU a day before Brewer and Obama stood toe-to-toe on the tarmac.

Incidents of incivility have always existed in American politics, but some analysts say those incidents are on the rise, especially where Obama is concerned. On a list of the top 10 worst incidents of disrespect to Obama on political blog politic365.com, Brewer's finger-pointing made it to No. 7 — questioning Obama's birthplace ranked at No. 1.

True, incivility has always existed in American politics, says Ray Smock, former historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, but in some ways it has never been worse than now.

"The extremes of the 1850s, the complete breakdown of the art of compromise, led to war and the loss of more than 600,000 American lives," Smock wrote in an essay this week for the Robert C. Byrd Center, a non-profit education organization. "Despite the brawls of past history I maintain that civility in Congress … especially in the House, is at one of the lowest ebbs in congressional history."

EMAIL: achoate@desnews.com

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