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Gwen’s Take: On liars, prostitutes and shrinking civility

bio-ifill
Co-Anchor & Managing Editor
BY Gwen Ifill  June 20, 2014 at 2:24 PM EDT
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Brian Schweitzer, a former governor of Montana, has made his fair share of political blunders lately. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

I believe it has been well established in this space that I like politics and generally respect politicians.

Sometimes, however, it is a challenge.

Take Brian Schweitzer. Please.

In a crazily detailed National Journal profile, Schweitzer (a Montana Democrat, former governor, current MSNBC contributor and pondering presidential hopeful) compared Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein to a prostitute, suggested outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor might be gay and said that southern men in general are effeminate.

I know. That paragraph is crazy, right? Here is the exact passage from Marin Cogan’s story:

Schweitzer is incredulous that Feinstein—considered by her critics to be too close to the intelligence community—was now criticizing the [CIA]. ‘”She was the woman who was standing under the streetlight with her dress pulled all the way up over her knees, and now she says, ‘I’m a nun,’ when it comes to this spying!” he says. Then, he adds, quickly, “I mean, maybe that’s the wrong metaphor—but she was all in!”

(It wasn’t the only time Schweitzer was unable to hold his tongue. Last week, I called him on the night Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated in his GOP primary. “Don’t hold this against me, but I’m going to blurt it out. How do I say this … men in the South, they are a little effeminate,” he offered when I mentioned the stunning news. When I asked him what he meant, he added, “They just have effeminate mannerisms. If you were just a regular person, you turned on the TV, and you saw Eric Cantor talking, I would say—and I’m fine with gay people, that’s all right—but my gaydar is 60-70 percent. But he’s not, I think, so I don’t know. Again, I couldn’t care less. I’m accepting.”)

Once I snapped my jaw shut, I started to think about how often seasoned, reasonably experienced politicians step in it.

There was Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who, while being interviewed by Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour, assailed Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine (who had preceded him in a conversation about Iraq), essentially calling him a liar.

Kaine argued that the Iraqi leadership resisted U.S. offers to leave a residual force on the ground to help with the transition after the war ended. “When the foreign minister of Iraq says, we know you wanted to stay, but we stiff-armed you and told you to get out,” Kaine said, “I actually think that that’s probably the state of affairs; they didn’t want us.”

It was already on the record that McCain sees that history differently. But when Judy asked him to respond to Kaine’s comment, he did not merely disagree in that cordial way we have come to expect from United States senators.

“What Senator Kaine is saying is just totally false,” McCain said. “In fact, it’s a lie, because Lindsey Graham and I were there. And we know what happened, because we were there face to face.”

According to McCain, the Obama administration dropped the ball by failing to provide a serious troop strength number.

“Those are very strong words, accusing Senator Kaine of lying,” Judy interjected.

“No,” McCain replied. “I’m saying it is a lie to say …that the Iraqis rejected. It was President Obama’s commitment to get everybody out of Iraq. That’s the overriding fact here.”

So, the reasoning went, Kaine lied, but wasn’t a liar?

No matter which man has his facts correct, this was not a shining moment in senatorial comity.

There are plenty of examples of this, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Part of the reason I admire public servants is because the good ones are effective conveyor belts for our citizenship. You may not agree with Sarah Palin or Harry Reid, but they represent something real and visceral in our national public debate.

That’s until they veer off course, forsaking debate for invective and elucidation for evasion. Seems there is a better way, especially among people who aspire to lead.