Phillip Paludan says he can tell when public officials don’t respect citizens. We can tell what others think of us, he says, by the way they talk to us. Too many officials talk down to us, which suggests they don't respect our ability to think. Paludan's perspective is especially intriguing because he's among the top Lincoln scholars in the United States. He believes one mark of Lincoln¸s greatness was his insistence on taking the high road in his speeches.
Lincoln's approach, Paludan says, provides a sharp contrast to the incivility of much of today's public debate. Paludan spoke eloquently on the subject after being invested November 7 at the University of Illinois at Springfield as the first scholar to hold The Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies.
His commentary about the nobility of civil discourse is timely. As he was speaking, it's possible—no, likely—that Illinois campaign strategists already were planning television ads and brochures for the March primary that viciously attack and distort their opponents' positions and characters.
It's the Illinois way. Former Gov. James Thompson reminded the Civic Federation before the 1998 elections that American politics have always been "raw, cruel and personal." It's a message we love to hate, even as we brace for the next round of distasteful ads.
Several times in recent years, I have asked readers to send me copies of offensive campaign messages. There has not been a shortage, and that's what led me to write three years ago (see December 1998) in this space that too much of what we saw in 1998 was misleading, nasty or irrelevant.
So if you start seeing ads you detest, think of Lincoln and Paludan; remember that it could be different. It really could. And think of their admonition that candidates who talk down to us don't respect us. They really don't.
Diana Nelson will become the new chair of the Illinois Issues Board in January. She’s a former state representative who is now the public affairs director of the Union League Club of Chicago. She follows former Senate President Philip Rock, who served us well as the chair for most of the 1990s. I'm delighted our board members elected Nelson as chair at the November meeting. She's enthusiastic and thoughtful and has raised the Union League's visibility in recent years. My guess is that she'll do the same for our board.
Illinois Issues, December 2001