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Robert Bennett: Reduce the shrillness level of political rhetoric

Published: Monday, March 17 2014 3:05 p.m. MDT

Depicted in this undated illustration from an old print, the inauguration of President James A. Garfield in 1881 by Supreme Court Justice Noah H. Swayne.

Associated Press

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I just finished reading a terrific book, Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard. It’s about the nomination, election, brief term in office and tragic death of James A. Garfield, a President whose name most Americans don’t recognize. I think it has something to say to us today.

In 1880, the Republican Party was deeply divided between two warring factions: the Stalwarts, who wanted to continue giving out government jobs under the “spoils system” — from the saying “to the victors belong the spoils” — and the Half-breeds, reformers who wanted public jobs awarded on merit. Garfield was a Half-breed, but he was nonetheless grudgingly respected by some of the Stalwarts. After 38 ballots without any other candidate receiving a majority, he was drafted as the one man who could unite the party. The Republican Convention then selected a Stalwart, Chester Arthur, as vice president, to balance the ticket.

However, after Garfield won, Senator Roscoe Conkling, the Stalwarts’ leader, made it very clear that this didn’t mean there would be party unity. He wrote Garfield, prior to his inauguration, to say, “I need hardly add that your Administration cannot be more successful than I wish it to be.”

Garfield picked two Stalwarts for his cabinet as a gesture of good will. Conkling, aided by Vice President Arthur, successfully pressured both into refusing the offer, telling them that even though they were Republicans, serving in a Garfield administration would be a betrayal of their principles as Stalwarts. Garfield had no choice but to fight back. He told his journal, “Of course I deprecate war, but if it is brought to my door the bringer will find me at home.” The party was tearing itself apart.

Our current political situation is not that different. It is filled with voices that are as harsh and divisive as Roscoe Conkling’s. A term has been coined — RINO or Republican in Name Only — that Conkling would have used against Garfield if he had heard it. An all-purpose slur for any party member with whom one disagrees, it has been attached to George W. Bush, just as its equivalent — DINO — has been to Barack Obama.

Conkling finally over-reached and lost his power; his abusive rhetoric and divisive actions worked against him. When Garfield was assassinated, many people thought Conkling had had a hand in it because the assassin declared that he, too, was a Stalwart. America went into deep mourning for its fallen leader, President Arthur eliminated the spoils system and installed a civil service system based on merit. And for a time, party divisiveness went away.

There are a few hopeful signs that the same thing is starting to happen now. In 2012, Utahns ignored the extreme attacks that FreedomWorks made on Sen. Orrin Hatch prior to the convention. Recently, the conservative author Ann Coulter scolded the Club for Growth for labeling Sen. Mitch McConnell as a RINO in his primary. My colleagues in the Senate tell me that the more incendiary members there have either toned things down a bit or been isolated after the bitter debate over the government shutdown.

If voters choose candidates that demonstrate more interest in governing than in ideological purity in the fall, that trend will continue. It shouldn’t take the trauma of a presidential assassination to reduce the shrillness level of political rhetoric.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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