Maxims Helped Washington Stay Civil: And May Again, If Social Critic's Revival Catches On

Article excerpt

Although civility seems to be in short supply in Washington, a tiny new book by social critic Richard Brookhiser suggests rules of public decorum written by George Washington himself.

To a namesake city badly in need of his advice, he offers such gems as "be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof."

The two representatives involved in a recent name-calling scuffle on the floor of the House could have benefited from his "point not with your finger at him of whom you discourse, nor approach too near him to whom you talk, especially to his face."

In other words, keeping your distance is a sign of respect.

President Clinton confessed in February at a National Prayer Breakfast that he had harbored mean-spirited feelings toward his enemies. "I'd wake up in the morning . . . and I thought, `Now, who can I get even with?' " he said.

The political climate became so venal earlier this year, after a fierce, partisan battle over House Speaker Newt Gingrich's ethics case, that House members from both parties felt the need to go on a retreat to Hershey Park, Pa., to examine the decline of civility in their relations. The mood of forgiveness didn't seem to last long, as bitter internal fights broke out anew among Republicans over Mr. Gingrich's leadership.

Three former U.S. presidents - Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush - while dedicating new exhibits at the Gerald R. Ford Museum last Thursday called on politicians to be less divisive.

"I think all three of us deplore the lack of civility in the Congress between Democrats and Republicans, the lack of civility to a significant degree between the White House and the Congress," Mr. Ford said.

However, there are few guides on civil behavior to consult, beyond the parliamentary rule books for the House and Senate.

Until now. Most of the rules in Mr. Brookhiser's book are pertinent to today's society, especially in Washington, where greatness has become more of a concept than reality and nobility of character is rare.

Titled "The Rules of Civility," Mr. Brookhiser's edited work contains 110 rules of proper behavior that a teen-age George Washington painstakingly copied into a notebook 2 1/2 centuries ago from a popular book.

Our first president "was shaped by many forces, from battles to books. But one of the earliest, and most important was `The Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. …