In Abraham Lincoln's first Inaugural Address, the 16th president appealed to the "better angels of our nature."
In a recent speech in Prescott, Ariz., where Barry Goldwater launched his 1964 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain made a similar appeal for this presidential campaign to avoid partisan sniping and instead engage in civil debate.
Lincoln's appeal to angels was overcome by the devils of the Civil War. And Lyndon Johnson routed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, in part because Goldwater was smeared as a warmonger.
Like Lincoln, McCain is trying to rise above the din and elevate the level of political discourse. In his Arizona speech he said, "Let us remember, we are not enemies. We are compatriots defending ourselves from a real enemy. We have nothing to fear from each other."
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has said similar things about jettisoning the polarization of the past and talking to each other with respect.
All of this sounds noble and the stuff of congeniality awards, but can it work beyond primary season? When the going gets tough, will one or both candidates be forced to launch verbal missiles? Can either or both candidates declare conscientious objector status and still hope to win a political war?
McCain and Obama will have people on their "side" dispensing plenty of rhetorical fire. Ed Schultz, a liberal talk-radio host, has called McCain a "warmonger." Schultz's comment came at an Obama fund-raiser in Grand Forks, N.D. Obama had not yet arrived in the room and apparently was not told of Schultz's remark because he made no reference to it in his speech or afterward (contrast this with McCain's immediate denunciation of anti-Obama comments by his supporters, which he deemed inappropriate).
The next day, an Obama spokeswoman issued a statement that sought to distance Obama from Schultz's comment. It said, "John McCain is not a warmonger and should not be described as such. He's a supporter of a war that Sen. Obama believes should never have been authorized and never been waged." Civility would have been better served had Sen. Obama spoken those words and not a campaign spokeswoman. Outrageous public comments deserve a public rebuke, not a press release.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read Cal Thomas' column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.