It has been a few days now since Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at a Tuscon “Congress at Your Corner” event.
Lost to humanity were a little girl born on 9/11, a federal judge, an elderly man who shielded his wife from the hail of bullets, a community activist, a retiree from New York, and a woman there to ask Rep. Gabrielle Giffords about some of her political positions.
But before the crime scene could even be processed, pundits were passing blame back and forth as rapidly as the bullets that came from Loughner’s gun. It was Sarah Palin’s ad that had sniper scopes on it, it was tea party rhetoric, it was the isolated act of a deranged madman, it was this, it was that.
Briefly, a discussion came forward that politics had gotten too mean and personal. Candidates and elected officials on both sides of the aisle have degenerated discourse to a level more appropriate for an episode of Jerry Springer. But that discussion faded quickly and by Monday, less than 48 hours after the shooting, the topic was relegated to filler on the 24-hour news channels.
Prior to becoming a journalist, I spent more than 20 years working on political campaigns and witnessed some of the worst — or at least more disturbing — aspects of civic life. While nothing can come close to what happened in Tuscon, I couldn’t help but recall what I had seen as I watched coverage of Saturday’s shooting.
The first was back in the early 1990s and it was juvenile. The night our candidate won, we came out of our campaign headquarters and found that every car that had our candidate’s sticker on it had been keyed.
From there it got worse.
I had a punch thrown at me at one event. I saw someone holding up what they claimed to be an aborted fetus in a jar and tried to shove it into the face of someone he disagreed with while screaming “Is this what God wants?!” I have answered the phone at many a campaign headquarters where I have been berated and warned that we all better watch our backs. Of course there were the occasional bomb threats — back then, we just hung up and went about our day.
The worst would have been a campaign I worked out West. On two separate occasions, I arrived at work early in the morning to find that overnight someone had thrown buckets of feces all over the doors and windows of our campaign headquarters. The smell, as you can imagine, was overpowering.
Through it all I found that my professional counterparts on the other side of the aisle were good people I disagreed with politically, but I enjoyed their company. Once while I was working in Florida, I discovered that I had checked into the same hotel where an old friend from Washington, D.C., was staying. We were both there to work on a special election — against each other. It was a great experience. We worked hard as opponents all day and then often met up for a drink at night.
Over time, though, something changed. People I worked with didn’t want to or couldn’t talk to people on the other side. My friends on the other side found that more and more of their co-workers were doing the same thing. Civility was dying.
Almost a decade ago I left the life of a political operative. I thought I had lost my edge, but looking back I realize now that the “edge” had gotten sharper than I was willing to play with. It’s politics, not personal.
I grieve for those that lost their lives in Tuscon, and I hope that civil discourse will once again find its way into the American political process.