The political system discourages civility

The first time I encountered Barbara Vucanovich, she took a dig at me. She was running for the U.S. House from the northern district. Nevada had just gotten a second district for the first time in state history.

I was on a panel of questioners taping a Sunday interview program and she was the guest. When I asked her a question, she began by saying, “Well, Dennis, you’re a Democrat.” It was the only time anyone ever gave me a response like that. I found out later that she had been warned about me by an aide on the grounds that I had done things such as serve as press secretary for a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate.

Until that campaign, her experience in politics had been entirely within Republican circles. She had been a behind-the-scenes worker in the GOP, rarely dealing directly with Democrats, much less liberal Democrats. When we deal only with those who agree with us, the result is we become dogmatic. When Vucanovich ran for the House, she had to deal with others, but her previous experiences had made her pretty intransigent. When she was warned about me, she saw the enemy.

Fortunately, one of the viewers of that program was Nevada Republican chair Frank Fahrenkopf, who had dealt with me often, and he thought Vucanovich’s challenge of me was a mistake. He made a call to her. I don’t know what he said, but it was probably something in the way of, “Give him a chance.”

Over time, and especially after that campaign was over and she was a member of Congress, she relaxed a bit. As time passed, she dealt better with a lot of reporters and, more importantly, with her colleagues in the House, Democrats included. In 1986, she told me, “They are all very sincere, genuine people, and they believe what they believe as strongly as people in the West … And so you learn that you at least have to listen to how their — what they’re saying, and then see if you can’t accommodate them as well as yourself.”

That year, I wrote for a capital newspaper, “Dealing with flesh and blood liberals in the House was different from castigating ideological devils on the campaign trail. Vucanovich was forced to see Democrats not as abstractions but as people — some of whom, she found, were rather nice, and many of whom she needed to work with if she was to accomplish anything.”

She even became more comfortable with me and was always friendly during our intermittent interviews. On one occasion she became ensnarled in the House banking scandal, during which it became known that the House bank had been covering overdrafts at no charge for members. It was the kind of story journalism does not cover well, and she felt her own story was not being fairly told. She sent her husband, George, to me with her bank records and a request that I read them over. I did, and wrote a column in which I tried to tell the story with a little more nuance. One thing I found, I remember, was that the bank had some sloppy practices. It had, for example, accepted three deposits from Vucanovich, but didn’t credit them to her account until the third one. The first two sat around for a while.

She arrived in D.C. two years into the Reagan presidency and departed halfway through the Clinton presidency. Along the way, George Bush had run against Michael Dukakis and used a whole new array of vile campaign techniques. Newsweek called the Bush campaign the political equivalent of toxic waste dumping, but it was successful and campaigns across the land started imitating them. During the years when Vucanovich learned to become more bipartisan, politics became less so. I don’t know why she decided to retire. She could have been re-elected the rest of her life. But the way politics was becoming more polarized may have been distasteful to her. The last time I saw her, in February, I asked her if she would like to be back in the House.

“No, thank you,” she said. “There’s just no cooperation. Nobody wants to get anything done. But it’s sad because it’s more of a battle than it is representing people and governing properly. They’re not doing that.”

A couple of days after her death, there was a reminder of what had happened to politics during her House tenure. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in D.C. sent out a news release that tried to tar one of her successors in the House, Mark Amodei, with Rep. Trent Franks’ notorious comments about rape and pregnancy. “Does Congressman Amodei Side With Extremists Who Say Rapes Don’t Result in Pregnancy?” read its headline. It didn’t answer the question, just got Amodei’s name into as many of the same sentences with “rape” and “pregnancy” as possible and provided no evidence that Amodei sympathizes with Franks.

It was despicable, and provided some evidence that Vucanovich made the right decision in returning home.

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.

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