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Wilson’s Outburst Did Dishonor to All of Congress

"I hold the distinguished gentleman in minimum high regard.” That was the way former Speaker John McCormack (D-Mass.) would express his deep displeasure and anger at a colleague on the floor of the House. Call it the 1950s equivalent of “You lie!”

Of course, McCormack, who spent 42 years in the House and through 51 years of marriage never missed an evening with his beloved wife, was not a typical Member of Congress. And he left the speakership in the early ’70s amid concerns by his colleagues that he wasn’t tough enough to deal with politics as they got sharper and more partisan.

But McCormack also reflected a prevailing attitude in an era when Congress struggled mightily to maintain its legitimacy and contain its conflicts by setting real standards of decorum — he was an opinion leader who tried to make sure that the bitterness, anger and other emotions that come with real disputes about real issues, with the highest of stakes in the society, stayed focused on the differences over issues and did not degenerate into personal attacks on the character or very legitimacy of the people making contrary arguments.

The rules of both chambers, but especially the House, create serious penalties for those who cast aspersions on the character of their colleagues (or refer directly to the other chamber in derogatory terms). Even Speakers have felt the lash of those penalties, including Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) when he stepped over the line on the floor reacting to Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his colleagues’ use of special orders to hit Democrats and called it “the lowest thing” he had seen in his service in the House.

Of course, any student of Congress knows that McCormack’s approach of exaggerated courtesy was hardly the norm. Congress has had its share of rowdiness, and even eras of serious physical violence, right on the floor or right off it. Brutal canings or duels were confined to the 19th century, but there were physical confrontations of note even in our recent past, if nothing more notable than a wrestling match between Sens. Strom Thurmond (S.C.) and Ralph Yarborough (Texas).

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