Although I deeply cherish the American freedom of speech as found in our unique Constitution, I worry about the lack of civility that has become widespread recently throughout the country.
A good example of that is the action of Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who interrupted a speech to a joint meeting of both houses of Congress by President Barack Obama on his health care reform plan, and shouted "You lie!"
What kind of example was that outburst for the young people of our nation? What did that disrespect of the office of the president, and of the decorum of a formal meeting of both houses of Congress, show about political events in this country as seen from abroad?
I know that Wilson apologized to the president, but the event is now firmly part of our American history.
Sometimes our president has lied and been caught in the act. On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane flown by Francis Gary Powers was shot down well inside Soviet airspace, and Powers was taken prisoner by the Russians.
Before we knew many details, President Dwight Eisenhower announced to the world that Powers was flying a weather data-gathering plane that accidentally flew off course into Soviet airspace. He was surprised when the Russians announced that not only did they have the American pilot, but they also had retrieved some of the spy equipment that survived the crash of his U-2.
During the Cold War, I visited the Soviet Union on a number of study tours. On one of these trips, we toured the Soviet Battleship Aurora that shot the first salvo of the Soviet Revolution of 1917. It is a floating museum anchored in the waters of St. Petersburg.
As I went below decks to see what the inside of this old ship looked like, I came upon a brightly lit propaganda display of some of the cameras and other spying equipment that fell into Russian hands when they shot the U-2 down. I do not know if that display is still there today.
Later in 1960, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev appointed himself as one of the Soviet Union’s delegates to the United Nations meeting in New York. There on Oct. 12, he made history when he took off his shoe and banged it on his desk in a vulgar outburst. What advantage he had taken from catching Eisenhower in a lie was lost by that shoe display.
When Khrushchev died, he was buried in a remote graveyard, far from the other Soviet leaders. When I asked a Soviet student about that, she shrugged and said she was embarrassed by the shoe banging episode. Perhaps many Russians felt the same.
Shoes became political more recently when on Dec. 15, 2008, in Iraq, a journalist took off both his shoes and threw them one after the other at President George W. Bush. Our president just shrugged it off, and it did seem to be funny, but it could have involved gunfire.
How did the journalist have the time to throw both shoes? We can hope future presidential visits abroad are better protected.
Returning to the aspects of a presidential statement, how many Americans agreed with Richard Nixon’s statement on Nov. 17, 1973: "I am not a crook"?
And how many Americans believed President Bill Clinton when he said flatly: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman (Monica Lewinsky)"?
Our president, legislators, governors, state legislators and other officials should maintain a degree of honesty, civility and reliability. If they lie, cheat or enrich themselves by taking advantage of loopholes that have been sneaked into legislation, our national image will be hurt.
How can we continue to be the main superpower leader of the free world if we do not present a solid government built on trust and respect as our officials do their jobs to serve us and all our people in a clean, open and honest way?
Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly and on gainesvilletimes.com.