Conduct Unbecoming

Editorial

The Washington Post

Saturday, June 26, 2004; Page A22

"I LOOK FORWARD to working with you, Governor, to change the tone in Washington, to restore a spirit of civility and respect and cooperation." So said Dick Cheney on the day he was chosen to be George W. Bush's running mate. "The days of the war room and the permanent campaign are over. . . . We take seriously the responsibility to be honest and civil." So said Mr. Cheney in February 2001, in his first major speech as vice president.

In his confrontation with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) during a picture-taking session on the Senate floor Thursday, the vice president's vulgar suggestion of what Mr. Leahy should do to himself did not live up to those high-toned statements. The remark, in that setting, was disappointing, not so much for the profanity (we've been around long enough to have suspected that even politicians use such words sometimes) but for the partisan hostility and distrust that seemed to underlie it. Mr. Cheney was angry about Democrats' recent assaults on the administration and Halliburton, the oil services firm that Mr. Cheney used to head. Mr. Leahy responded by citing attacks, not disavowed by the White House, on Senate Democrats for being anti-Catholic in their opposition to some judicial nominees.

Each party these days feels its criticism is legitimate and policy-based, and acts surprised when the other side takes umbrage. But to the targets, it doesn't feel that way; it doesn't feel legitimate to be called corrupt (in Mr. Cheney's case) or bigoted (in Mr. Leahy's), when no evidence to support either charge has been put forward. Whenever one of these angry moments comes along, someone points out that politics has always been rough-and-tumble, that attacks were pretty vicious in Thomas Jefferson's day, and so on, all of which is true. It's also true, though, as Mr. Cheney said in 2001, that there's been less and less willingness in recent years to assume good faith on the other side, a trend that makes governing more difficult. Mr. Cheney indicated yesterday on Fox News that he has no regrets ("I felt better after I said it"), which in itself is another sad milepost.