Democrat Jack Conway, attempting to take down his opponent for the U.S. Senate seat in Kentucky, Rand Paul, decided to go low. He employed a number of personal attacks including questions about Paul’s participation in a harmless, if bizarre college prank that had been the subject of a blatantly unfair article in Gentleman’s Quarterly. It was a desperate, mean, and unprofessional performance by Conway. Paul was obviously and understandably furious.
At the end of the debate, Paul rushed by Conway, ignoring his outstretched hand. I sympathize with him. I empathize with him. In the heat of the moment, having just had my opponent smear me on television with tales out of school—literally—I might have even done the same thing, though I hope not. Nevertheless, Paul rejected a vital ritual as well as a cardinal rule of civility in the political arena, where, as in the sporting arena, the handshake after the contest sends a symbolic message of reconciliation, forgiveness, respect, and most of all, professionalism.
The emphasis is on “symbolic.” The final handshake does not necessarily convey actual forgiveness or respect. After the nationally televised Vice-Presidential debate in which Sen. Lloyd Bentsen delivered a devastating and belittling personal insult to Dan Quayle , Quayle still mustered the civility and professionalism to shake Bentsen’s hand. I’m sure Quayle wanted to slug him, or spit in his eye. The handshake, however, sent a different, important and essential message:
“This isn’t personal. Whatever happens in the future, my actions will not be driven by personal vendettas, anger, hatred or bias. I will work with friends, strangers and political enemies alike, putting aside personal grudges and grievances, to seek and achieve what is best for the public good and our nation. By shaking my hand, you pledge to do the same.”
Rand Paul couldn’t bring himself to send that message, and make that symbolic pledge with the ritual shaking of his opponent’s hand. The message that Paul’s conduct sent was that he will be a leader governed as much by emotions as principle, and that he is not professional in his approach to government. In Congress and in the Senate, the nation is paralyzed by its elected representatives’ unwillingness to compromise, be civil, collaborate, and work with colleagues whose positions, actions, words and personalities they oppose or even find offensive. Representative democracy doesn’t work under these conditions.
The toxic and uncivil environment in Washington isn’t the fault of Rand Paul, but what the country needs is more professionalism and civility, not more of the same. Rand Paul’s refusal to shake hands shows that he doesn’t understand the profession he is preparing to enter, and that he is likely to practice the politics of anger rather than the politics of reason.
Jack Conway’s performance was despicable, but it spoke for itself. Paul didn’t have to show Conway or viewers that he felt abused and was angry: they already knew that. What he did need to show voters was that he had the temperment, competence, focus and grace to rise above personal grievances to be a responsible and trustworthy leader.
He couldn’t bring himself to do it.