Models of political civility

We have been looking through Our Sunday Visitor’s files a lot these past months, to get an idea of what the newspaper has been during its century of publication. 

A few weeks ago, going through past editions, I saw a photograph published in spring 1944. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt, wearing a black dress and a black hat, as was then the style for funerals, is stepping from a White House limousine onto the curb in front of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. 

Greeting her is Archbishop Francis J. Spellman of New York. She was representing her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the Pontifical Requiem Mass for former New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith. 

Franklin Roosevelt enthusiastically supported Al Smith’s presidential bid in 1928. Eleanor Roosevelt was national chair of Smith’s women’s group. Smith lost badly — his intelligence, integrity and even his loyalty to the country all bitterly attacked. 

Four years later, Franklin Roosevelt himself was elected president and was re-elected in 1936, 1940 and 1944. Smith was dead when Roosevelt ran for the fourth time, but he was very much alive in 1936 and 1940. In those elections, he opposed Roosevelt because he could not accept Roosevelt’s domestic agenda. 

While Smith’s opposition may have stung him, Roosevelt never rebutted by insulting Smith personally, nor did Smith ever question the president’s fundamental commitment to the well-being of the country. Both men kept their disagreements at the philosophical level. 

When Smith died, Franklin Roosevelt issued a heartfelt statement, saying that Smith was “as honest as the day is long” and was a “patriot” whose equal rarely is seen in America. 

Politics in America always has had its nasty moments, actually more often than not. These days, however, an especially strong poison is running through political debate. All too often, discussion revolves around personalities or wild hunches about personalities, and it is ugly. It is killing our governmental process and destroying trust in our system. 

Every year in New York, the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner raises money for worthwhile causes. It is not a project of the Archdiocese of New York, although the links between the dinner’s organizers and the archdiocese are many. 

The custom long has been to invite presidential candidates, and most have attended through the years. President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney have accepted invitations to this year’s dinner. 

Many people, furious that an invitation went to President Obama with his clearly pro-abortion mindset, have bombarded New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan with complaints. This bitter climate of personal assault reaches far. Critics of the Obama invitation have said that the cardinal, who is not in charge of the dinner and who is as outspokenly and constantly pro-life as anyone in this country, has deserted his principles, is not very smart, is insincere, or worse. 

Responding to these charges, Cardinal Dolan wrote a blog post in which he made some excellent points and set the record straight about the organization of the dinner. An invitation is not a surrender of Church teachings. It is not an opening to rebuke these teachings, nor an endorsement of a candidate or a party platform. Rather, at the dinner, the cardinal noted, Americans of all opinions come together to encourage efforts to help the needy in society. 

Being civil and keeping personalities out of politics is not cowardly. It diverts the spotlight to what truly matters. 

As I looked at that photograph from 1944, I thought how good it would be if Roosevelt and Smith were models for political discussion today. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.