Civility Can Save the Day in Law and Politics

Last week, political television pundit Chris Matthews made headlines during his Boston visit.  The BBA was there when he addressed the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Forum.  Matthews is on a book tour promoting Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.  The irony of his book’s subtitle was not lost on the audience as week one of the government shutdown was coming to an end.  The subtitle – when politics worked – provided a perfect contrast to the recent events on Capitol Hill. 

Though television political banter is hardly known for its speakers’ calm demeanors and respectful exchange of ideas, Matthews pointed to these traits as the hallmark of a relative golden age of politics.  United States Representative from Massachusetts and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan were on different sides of the aisle, but they managed to work together and find compromises to benefit the country.  Outside of politics, they became personal friends in a relationship built on mutual respect.  Tip was the first person to visit Reagan in the hospital after he was shot in a failed assassination attempt in 1981.  President Regan was fond of the expression “we’re all friends after 6:00.”  Both recognized the importance of talking through their differences and putting America first.

Matthews compared them with today’s government leaders.  He noted that O’Neill represented the President before Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev in a move considered normal at the time.  When he asked if anyone could imagine President Obama sending John Boehner as his personal representative before Vladimir Putin, the audience laughed. 

Matthews noted that the biggest problems with government today are a lost sense of national unity and a lack of personal relationships between lawmakers.  As he put it, political “lubrication” comes from personal relationships –lawmakers are much more likely to compromise at work when their spouses are friends outside of it. 

Lawyers can learn a lot from these messages.  Much like politics, the nature of law as a profession presupposes an adversarial relationship during the day.  But, as BBA President Paul Dacier notes, lawyers should be able to share a drink after work.  He is a strong proponent of civility in the courtroom and in our profession. 

In government, civility can be a means to ending political stalemate and the government shutdown.  In the courts it can expedite the legal process, earn you the respect of your peers, and even help you win your case.  Civility truly can save the day.

- Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
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