A fiery city councilman and a passionate educator have mixed it up at a groundbreaking that was more like a verbal wrestling match than a solemn civic occasion.
Civic discourse in New York often has rough edges and can cause bruised feelings. But this battle raises some interesting questions like: What is politeness? Can a city councilman be disrespected? In politics, what is a disgrace?
Charles Barron, chairman of the City Council’s higher education committee, had just spoken to a crowd at the ceremony marking the beginning of construction on a replacement for Fiterman Hall, the CUNY building on West Broadway heavily damaged on 9/11. Barron said that he and a group of students who campaigned for this construction had virtually been ignored.
When he was finally called on to speak, the legislator said: “I don’t like disrespect.”
Then, speaking of the students who campaigned for this structure, he declared: “They’re the ones that made it happen. The mayor gets up here and doesn’t even respect us enough to even mention that we were involved in it at all.” A trustee of the city university, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, shouted out: “You‘re a disgrace!” Barron retorted: “Whether or not you like it, I’m here.”
Then, The New York Times reported, both men spent a minute yelling at each other. Barron called Wiesenfeld a “sickening racist” and told him to “shut up.” Wiesenfeld, who once worked for Governor Pataki, said of Barron: “The man lacks civility. He is the lone individual who looks for persecutors under every rock and uses it as an excuse to act impolitely.”
What is civility? The father of our country, George Washington, when he was a 16-year-old schoolboy, wrote "110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior.”
Among young Washington’s rules: “Let your conversation be without malice or envy…Never express anything unbecoming…Speak not injurious words either in jest nor earnest…Think before you speak. Pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your words too hastily….”
These adversaries don’t score very well by these rules!
Yet America has seen worse. Historian Joseph Cummins has chronicled smears and attacks that go back to Washington’s successful run for the presidency in 1789. He says: “I think mudslinging definitely is still a big part of our election process but it’s less broad and vulgar.”
Thus, Jefferson hired a hack writer to attack John Adams as a “repulsive pedant”; Martin Van Buren was accused of wearing women’s corsets, Teddy Roosevelt referred to William Howard Taft as “a rat in a corner” and FDR called Alf Landon “ the White Mouse who wants to live in the White House.”
And the politicians of yesterday didn’t stop at attacking each other. Some had great scorn for the press that publicized the insults they threw at each other. Back in 1800, a Federalist poet socked it to the press when he wrote a little poem:
“ And lo! In meretricious dress Forth comes a strumpet called ‘THE PRESS.” Whose haggard, unrequested charms Rush into every blaggard’s arms.” Wow! That hits home. There are still more than a few practitioners of our profession who might deserve these words.
Barron and Wiesenfeld shouldn’t get medals for their angry words. But they are not the worst offenders in this nation’s long history of political discourse and bitter exchanges. We all share the guilt, even us strumpets.