Let’s Try First for Civility

Every four years, candidates for the highest office in the land deliver lofty speeches about what they want to do for this country. In addition to laying out ambitious domestic and foreign agendas, they often promise to bring unity to our political system by reaching across the political aisle and working together to solve our nation’s problems. The operative word in these campaign pledges is unity. 


But as we all know, such pledges suffer from the realities of a toxic political climate.

As we have seen over the past 20 to 30 years, unity within each of the political parties is becoming more and more scarce, never mind between our two political parties. Whatever happened to some modicum of civility in our political system? The lack of civility has created a toxic and harmful environment in Washington, DC.

President John Kennedy once said, “Civility is not a weakness.” True, and this country needs more strong, civil-minded political leaders to set an example for the rest of the nation by treating each other with greater respect in order to close the chasm that divides our political system. The current toxic environment should not exist. There was a time not long ago when it did not exist.

During the Reagan Administration, President Reagan and Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill were political adversaries. Neither would want to give an inch during legislative battles. Political adversaries indeed, but they also respected each other and would often get together for a drink at the end of an evening and to swap a few jokes. The same was said of members of Congress who embraced different political philosophies yet treated each other with respect and civility.

I have always felt that the advent of cable news and its 24-hour news coverage triggered the beginning of the demise in political civility. The late Hal Bruno, former Chair of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and ABC News Political Director once told me that cable news anchors are not so much journalists as they are political pundits putting their own spin on a story. There are no more Walter Cronkite’s. Objective reporting does not generate good ratings; partisan commentary does.

What I have enjoyed most about serving as CFSI Executive Director since 1995 is working with members of Congress from both sides of the political aisle to advance issues benefiting our nation’s fire and emergency services. For the most part, individual members of Congress are no different than you and me. Throughout the years, I have had the good fortune of working with many of them — from progressives to conservatives. I have shared the podium with them at fire service events and conversed with many party leaders backstage at the annual National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner, and I have always enjoyed the experience.

What will it take to restore civility in Washington, DC or have we reached the point of no return? Who knows? What I do know is that members of the fire and emergency services need to continue to set the example of how to treat others. The public continues to place their trust in firefighters and emergency services personnel, and for good reason. For their unselfishness, devotion to duty, love of country and treatment towards others.

Do not allow the partisan rancor to dissuade you from advocating Congress — as well as your state legislators — for issues that benefit the fire and emergency services. Stay engaged. If you don’t, who will? And in doing so, continue to be models of civility so that others may emulate your actions. Hopefully we have not reached the point of no return and civility will be restored in Washington, DC thanks in part to your example.

Bill Webb has served as Executive Director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute since 1995. CFSI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute designed to enhance congressional awareness about the concerns and needs of the fire and emergency services. As Executive Director, he works closely with members of Congress and fire service leaders to sustain support on Capitol Hill for programs and legislation that benefit our nation’s fire and emergency services. Before joining CFSI, Webb worked for the Firefighter Combat Challenge as the project manager for the competition. He currently serves as Vice Chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and is an honorary member of the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department, the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters’ Association and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 36.

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