Richard Nixon wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy in 1963 following her husband’s assassination. Nixon had been in politics already for years and played hardball, surely in the 1960 campaign when he, as the Republican nominee, ran against Democrat John Kennedy for the White House.
Former Vice President and future President Nixon addressed the widow as “Jackie” and referred to himself and his wife as “Dick” and “Pat.” He wrote that while “fate” had made him and the deceased president opponents, they never were enemies but always friends who held each other in regard. He said that always they respected each other as Americans, coincidentally of differing opinions, coincidentally with views strongly felt, always convinced that the other deeply desired the best for the country and was a person of principle.
(I am aware of subsequent revelations of Kennedy’s private life and that Nixon broke the law. Neither knew these things about the other at the time.)
That was then. Politics always has had a mean streak, but in 1963, common decency was expected, and indeed most Americans demanded it. Slurs against spouses or relatives were completely out of place.
This is now. Our society is becoming very mean, among people on all sides of political arguments. This sad tendency took such a turn recently when nothing short of outrageous messages circulated on the social media about President Barack Obama’s two adolescent daughters, Sasha and Malia. I mean outrageous, ridiculous, cheap.
The president, along with any other prominent politician, has his admirers and his opponents. It is to be expected. The president and his wife are in the public eye, their views daily put before the people, and such has been a regular occurrence for occupants of the White House for a long time.
The attacks on his young daughters, however, are completely out of place.
I bet this: The detractors in this case do not know these girls. Every sane indication is that they are normal, quite decent American teenagers. Regardless, they are not active in politics. They hold no office. To my knowledge, neither has ever given an interview to the press or connected herself publicly with any political position.
True, Americans watch the attire and behavior of presidential children as much as the British carefully observe Prince William and his wife, and this is to be expected.
The criticism of the Obama girls, however, was utterly absent of taste and of what Christians call charity. It was downright shocking.
To insult them — they appeared as if they were looking for a “place at the bar” — even in this day of uncontrollable free exchange of unproven comments was disgraceful.
It is easy to imagine how these unbecoming remarks about the Obama girls made the rounds realizing the virtual hysteria into which so many Americans have fallen in the past few years when forming judgments about others in the society who have different views. It is one thing to take positions regarding public policy — that is what makes a democracy — but now so many of us demean the characters and intentions of those with whom we disagree.
I worry. Wading in this acid of today, we are losing that old American gift of separating assessments about a public official’s politics from suppositions about his or her honor or integrity.
Maybe one day, we in this country will boldly and loudly take our stands but not allow ourselves to be swept away by meanness and illogic. When that day comes, we will be a better society — and we will draw more to our side of the argument.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.