Nothing in my remarks would have come as a surprise to readers of this column, and it turned out that maybe two-thirds of the people at the dinner strongly agreed with my talk. But it shocked one man -- a former university president of some note -- who denounced my comments as "the most intellectually dishonest speech I have ever heard." I think he meant to say that he disagreed. Or maybe he thought I was attacking his old university. Nobody knows what he thought because he just repeated his "intellectually dishonest" remark and left, closing the door quickly behind him.
This will stick in my mind as a good example of what has happened to debate in this country. Given a chance to speak his piece, the college president just got mad and got out. It never used to be this way. As many reporters reminded us last week, Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan fought sharply during the day but enjoyed having the occasional drink or two together after work. In the old days, William F. Buckley Jr. would hold public debates with all comers (I recall Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Steve Allen), then go out to a pleasant dinner with his opponent. Nowadays, Buckley or his adversary would probably be required to take umbrage, hurl some insult, then stomp out in a snit.
I caught the tail end of the civil-argument culture when Garry Wills and I started out many years ago as the original columnists in the National Catholic Reporter. We would frequently attack each other's ideas, but it never affected our friendship. Why should it?
In the current issue of The Atlantic, P.J. O'Rourke says that "Arguing, in the sense of attempting to convince others, seems to have gone out of fashion with everyone." O'Rourke doesn't pay much attention, he says, to talk radio, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, Al Franken or Michael Moore because they just shout things at partisan audiences that already agree with their chosen shouter. Technology reinforces the decline of serious argument -- now we can all go to a TV channel, a radio show, or a Web site that will protect us from those aliens across the moat who disagree with us.