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Experts hail return to civility at State of Union

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BEN NUCKOLS
January 26, 2011
— Democrats and Republicans sat together. Applause breaks were shorter and more subdued. Booing and heckling were nonexistent. And the president took pains to appeal to both sides.

Tuesday night's State of the Union address marked a return to civility for an event that had in recent years been overwhelmed by partisan rancor. Lawmakers from both sides pledged to tone down their rhetoric following a mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others.


Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., suggested that the parties abandon their tradition of sitting on opposite sides of the House chamber. The idea took hold, with dozens of lawmakers announcing they would pair up with a colleague from across the aisle. Some even had to choose between multiple suitors.


The difference was striking, according to two nationally recognized experts on manners and decorum.


"Date night worked," said Judith Martin, author of the syndicated Miss Manners column. "Instead of looking like a hockey game ... it looked like a dignified legislature."


P.M. Forni, a professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University who has dedicated the past 15 years to the study of civility, invited an Associated Press reporter to watch the State of the Union address at his Towson, Md., home. He wore a coat and tie, sipped iced tea and ate homemade sugar cookies while viewing the speech on a small television in his elegant study.


He, too, was encouraged by the altered seating arrangements.


"Some jaded observers would say that it is just an opportunistic sort of gimmick," Forni said. "I take it as an expression of good will. There is a lot of sincerity in this."


While partisanship during the State of the Union is nothing new, President Barack Obama's addresses to Congress have been particularly fraught. A speech to a joint session in 2009 was interrupted by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouting, "You lie!"


Last year, Obama took the unprecedented step of criticizing a Supreme Court decision in his State of the Union address, prompting an irked Justice Samuel Alito to shake his head and mouth the words, "Not true."


"In recent years," Forni said, "this sort of hallowed moment has been marred by informality and inappropriate behavior."


Martin told the AP in a telephone interview that Obama struck the appropriate tone by emphasizing the sort of consensus-building that's necessary for Congress to be productive.


"There's a reason that legislatures have very strict etiquette rules," she said. "The only way that you can reconcile extreme dissent is to put limits on how it's expressed."


But Forni said he was disappointed that Obama did not explicitly address civility, as he did in his widely praised speech at a memorial service for the Tucson victims.


"From the point of view of civility, it was a civil speech by the president to a civil audience," he said. But the address "was not that inspiring, and it was not delivered in a very inspiring way. ... I think it was a lost opportunity."


Shocking outbursts of violence inevitably lead to calls for greater civility, Forni said, and sometimes the effect can be lasting. The Columbine school shooting led to increased awareness of bullying.


It's too early to tell whether Tuesday's bipartisan seating arrangements and restrained atmosphere will become a new tradition. But Forni noted that civility isn't always foremost on the minds of lawmakers. In 2009, his publisher sent a copy of his influential manifesto, "Choosing Civility," to every member of Congress. Only one Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah acknowledged receiving the volume.


Martin noted that lawmakers showed a similar bipartisan spirit after Sept. 11, 2001, but their behavior regressed as memories of the tragedy faded.


"The hope in general that this will really permanently change people is something that I've become quite cynical about," Martin said. "It usually doesn't last."



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