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Robert Kirby: What happened to manners in political debates?

Robert Kirby

With the Old Man gone now, I’ll have to find someone else with whom to engage in political debates. It’s going to be tough.

Thanks to human nature, it’s almost impossible to find someone with whom to have political discussions that don’t end in threat of a physical assault or harsh words like “… and your mother, too!”

The Old Man and I could argue politics and still tolerate each other once the discussions were over. Granted, these talks weren’t entirely without rancor.

The earliest debate I can remember was a prolonged disagreement over whether he should vote for Barry Goldwater or Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential race. I leaned toward LBJ while he — somewhat of a John Bircher — supported Goldwater.

Since it was 1964 and I was still in the sixth grade, I couldn’t vote. It didn’t seem fair, but it was the law. So the best I could do was try to sway his vote. It usually went something like this.

Me • “Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. It’s past time for parity in America and an abolishment of discrimination.”

Dad • “Yeah, but Goldwater hates Commies.”

The Old Man was deeply concerned about Communists and would have voted for anyone, including a cartoon character or an actual cannibal, if that candidate promised to rid the world of them.

These early debates often ended in me threatening to run away from home, which was just fine with him as long as I finished mowing the lawn first.

I’ll miss those debates — not just because I’ve lost a worthy adversary, but also because today seems all about voting for the least annoying candidate rather than the most qualified.

Unlike the race between, oh, say, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, America didn’t have to wade through the sewer of social media to understand what the candidates had to offer.

During the 2016 presidential election, I was disgusted by both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I registered as unaffiliated and voted for either myself or Kim Jong Un. I can’t remember.

I still lean left, but not so much anymore. I consider myself a moderate Democrat much like Rep. Ben McAdams. I also respect Republican candidate Burgess Owens.

Know why? Because they haven’t been stripped of their basic humanity by politics. If they were to have a debate — unlike those attack ads we’ve been seeing — it probably would be conducted with decorum. Not like the recent one between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Despite the rules established beforehand, Trump was completely incapable of shutting up when it wasn’t his turn to talk. Granted, he wouldn’t have been able to do this even if someone had staple-gunned his tongue to the lectern.

Although guilty of far fewer interruptions, Biden came off more like a treed cat than a viable leader of the free world.

Finding differences in politics is easy. It’s having those differences and yet still managing to hang on to your manners that makes a difference. It’s almost impossible, thanks to anti-social media.

There’s still hope. With Wednesday’s debate in Salt Lake City between Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic nominee Sen. Kamala Harris, we might see manners again on display in politics.

Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.

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