"Those who would treat politics and morality apart will never understand the one or the other." On the strength of that single line written in 1873, Viscount Morley guaranteed for himself the perpetual patron sainthood of all the poor wretches who would ever practice what has to be the most thankless of all human professions: political speech writing.
Successful speech writers are generally neither appreciated nor acknowledged. Unsuccessful speech writers, who are those unlucky enough to toil for unsuccessful speakers, are soon unemployed and thinking about graduate school. The employed speech writer understands a couple of basic truths: the Boss' allergy to audience indifference and the Boss' addiction to enthusiastic and sustained applause.
What Morley's rule meant for whole generations of speech writers on both the left and the right was that an applause line never had to be more than a paragraph away, with the proper mixing of Morality and Politics. American politicians have envied, and American voters have responded to, speeches like FDR's first inaugural, in which he announced (admittedly prematurely that "the money-changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization." Just as 30 years later, Americans listened respectfully to President Kennedy define civil rights as "a moral issue" that was "as old as the Scriptures . . . and as clear as the American Constitution."
That's what started the stampede. That frayed, thin line between the sermon and the stump speech practically disappeared during the '60s. Civil rights, the Vietnam War, Watergate -- all were cast in large part by many speech writers and speakers as moral issues, beyond politics. Perhaps the political dialogue could have survived those excesses. But when the question of whether or not to sell Twinkles within 250 yards of a junior high school becomes a moral issue, the descendants of Viscount Morley dishonor his memory.
When lazy speech writers realized that the simple branding of an opponent's position as "a moral outrage" would bring the Boss' partisans out of their lethargy and their chairs, then we were all in trouble. The temptation became irresistible to substitute morality for research. Our opponents were no longer merely wrong or uninformed. They were not illogical; they were immoral.
Once I have called you and your position "immoral" on Monday, then what do you think the odds are of our collaborating on another, separate issue on Wednesday? Not good.The fragile fabric of coalition, so crucial in a nation as diverse as ours, is weakened. Our politics, when all of this happens, are demonized. I am not dumb. I am evil. And so are you.
For the past generation, most of the people who saw and spoke in terms of moral outrage were in and around the Democratic Party. And as any Democratic county chairman would admit, they were at best a mixed blessing. Like most true believers, these people could be fearsome volunteers when galvanized by that identifiable enemy, whether it was sexism or exploitation or economic conspiracies. Self-doubt is a stranger to the politics of morality. The opposition is identifiable.
But now, the moral activists, with their contempt for compromise and their disdain of moderates, are activating the Republican Party. If the Republicans have any doubts about the advantages of winning all these dedicated recruits and committed contributors, then maybe a talk is in order with a Democratic county chairman who just might warn them about the future agenda of those for whom politics is nine-tenths morality. Republicans can look forward to some grumbling about movies and liquor, magazines and books: "Maybe we could just eliminate the really sleazy ones." After all, any veteran Democrat could remind his Republican friends, it was only a short trip, or so it seemed, from his taking a stand against big-city police officers' arbitrarily brutalizing homosexuals to where party officers were advocating the "total right" of male high school students to give a wrist corsage to their favorite linebacker at the senior prom.
Democrats can now say to their respected opposition: we've had all that energy and commitment too long. Now, in fairness, it's your turn.