When a red-in-the-face Bill Clinton tells off an interviewer on Fox News, he may fire up his party's long frustrated base, and win the plaudits of those partisans who made up their minds long ago. About everything. But his little tizzy cost him more than his dignity. While reveling in the chance to tell off his critics, he lost an opportunity to raise the level of public discourse.
Amid all the finger-pointing rage and the kind of selective history that's good mainly for rhetorical purposes, reason evaporates. Bill Clinton's attack was followed predictably enough by counter-attacks, and what might have been a meaningful debate about the future gave way to one more rehash of the past. Given an opportunity to address the next generation, the former president seemed interested only in making points for the next election, or maybe the one after that. Which seemed the extent of his vision.
Much the same goes for George W. Bush when he responds to provocative questions at his news conference not by trying to raise the level of discussion but by going after the questioner. The president is less than presidential at such moments. With the result that the case he should be making - the case for going after terrorism on its home ground, for expanding democracy in the Middle East, for victory instead of drift - goes unmade.
And so another opportunity to raise the level of public discourse is lost, replaced by partisan slogans. Labels take the place of thought: cut-and-run, stay-the-course fill in your own cliche. Meanwhile, the appeal to reason goes unmade.
Other leaders have appealed to high principle at other critical times, well knowing the price they would pay. Nevertheless, they chose to pursue the opportunity to make a difference in history, to shape it rather than be shaped by it.
Think of the despised Churchill of the 1930s, that low, sordid decade, who dared warn of the gathering storm even if it meant he would be ignored - at least until he was sorely needed.
Think of the then unpopular Harry Truman, who chose to stand fast in Korea ("Truman's War") rather than either withdraw or turn that conflict into a world war while his presidential term drained away in frustration.
Think of how Ronald Reagan was ridiculed and railed against when he foresaw a world without the Soviet Union, and dared call that regime the evil empire it was.
Even in the midst of a congressional election that promises much heat, little light and even less honor, every press conference, every public appearance, every political speech presents every national leader with an opportunity to raise the level of public discourse. Each time our politicians choose to debase it instead - in order to please the crowd, or just to serve their own egos - they pay the cost. They lose the opportunity to mark the history of these times with their honor.