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Politics without decency

Apr 9, 2018

I don’t read a lot of blogs and bloggers, partly because I don’t have the time and partly because in many cases, I know what they are going to say before they say it.

But one I do read regularly is Chad Selweski’s commentary Politically Speaking, at PoliticsCentral.org. His motto is “a country that loses its values, its principles, has lost its heart. A country that loses its sensible center, its common ground, has lost its mind.”

I completely agree with that. I don’t always agree with Selweski, but that’s another good reason to read him. He has an honest and open mind. Plus I often learn something from him, especially about his native Macomb County, where he is a true expert. Macomb is not a place known for gentility or decorum; google Jim Fouts or Karen Spranger.

But on Friday, Selweski published a column about the particular lack of class in campaign rhetoric this year. “It seems that there is a particularly adolescent emphasis on genitals by the candidates,” he wrote, adding, “the crudeness of the … Trump political era has obviously taken hold in this Michigan campaign season.”

He went on to give numerous examples. Most were along the line of State Senator Tanya Schuitmaker’s comment that her fellow Republican, Speaker of the House Tom Leonard should “grow a pair.” The two are rivals for their party’s nomination for attorney general, something decided by party functionaries, not the voters.

When I was rereading that this morning, I couldn’t help but think of one of the most dramatic encounters in American history, one that happened exactly 153 years ago today, at right about this hour. You probably know the story. Splendid in his best dress uniform, General Robert E. Lee rode to a small brick home in the town of Appomattox Court House for the purpose of surrendering his army to U.S. Grant, which would mean the effective end of the Civil War.

That was the bloodiest war in our history. Something more than two percent of the entire population was killed, and to say emotions were high would be a huge understatement.

Lee wore his dress uniform partly because he thought he might be arrested, even hung as a traitor. What remained of his army was surrounded and starving and his purpose was to see if he could get decent terms for them. To his stunned surprise, Grant was magnanimous.

The terms were merely that the Confederates all had to sign something pledging not to take up arms against their country anymore. The men were allowed to take their horses and mules home to use in farming, and Grant ordered food provided for Lee’s army.

“This will have the best possible effect on the men,” a stunned Lee said. “It will do much towards conciliating our people.” Sadly, healing took generations. But had Grant been a swaggering bully, or questioned Lee’s manhood, the road back would have been far harder.

Grant’s magnanimity may have stemmed from that of his boss, Abraham Lincoln, who had said that when the South surrendered, the North should be like the victor in a wrestling match and “let ‘em up easy.”

It’s always dangerous to compare the present to the past. But I am happy some of our modern politicians weren’t in charge then.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.