Public discourse has become scabrous since the rise of the Internet and talk radio and television. Partisans routinely sling insults at one another, and invective hangs over too many discussions like a miasma.
But as low as public political discussion has sunk, there has traditionally been one line that even the most venomous partisans won’t cross, one unwritten rule: The kids are off limits.
Thus, you won’t see President Obama’s fiercest opponents going after his children. The same was true of President George W. Bush’s daughters, as well as Chelsea Clinton and their predecessors.
True, there have been exceptions: Rush Limbaugh denigrated Chelsea Clinton’s looks, for example. But that’s Rush Limbaugh; he has a successful schtick, and common decency is not part of it.
Never miss a local story.
Now, however, it seems that nothing, including children, is off limits if you are engaged in a political tussle.
That brings us to Linde Owen and the county Board of Supervisors.
Owen is part of a small group of Los Osos residents who for years have vigorously criticized the county and certain of its employees for actions that revolve around the contentious sewer project planned for the coastal community.
To which I say, good for them. They are being good citizens, fighting for what they think is best for their community.
In waging their lonely war against the county’s vision for a sewer, they have been robust in their criticisms of various county leaders they see as being responsible for destroying their community and driving poor people out.
Truth in advertising, they also have criticized The Tribune in general, and yours truly and other Tribune reporters in particular for our coverage of the issue.
Again, that’s fine. Criticism comes with the territory for those who hold elected office and members of the media, especially opinion columnists.
But partisans should leave the children of all these people alone. Pundits know it, political partisans know it, and those of us in the responsible media know it.
On Tuesday, Owen crossed that line. At a public meeting that was being carried over local radio and television airwaves, she criticized some individuals involved with the sewer for their actions and then said she was “sorry that their children’s (alleged) drug use (was) a bit of a problem.” I added the word alleged in parentheses in the quote above; Owen was not so scrupulous.
I’m not naming anybody here, other than Owen, for obvious reasons, and I almost skipped writing this column for those reasons — privacy in particular.
But, for heaven’s sake, somebody has to say something when the residents of a small community — and San Luis Obispo County is like a small town, really — start attacking each other’s children in public because they are mad at the parents.
Owen’s remarks made me think of former county Supervisor Shirley Bianchi, a stickler for civility who served as chairwoman. I had a feeling that Bianchi would have pounded her gavel so forcefully when Owen said the things she said that the dais would have crumbled.
I called Bianchi to ask her what she thought.
“It was way over the line,” she said.
Indeed it was. Owen owes some people an apology; she knows which people.
Owen’s bringing in the children the way she did recalls a legendary exchange between attorney Joseph Welch, who was speaking to the notorious red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 1950s.
“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last,” Welch asked. “Have you left no sense of decency?”
It’s a good question, and one we all should ask ourselves — repeatedly — when we get deeply involved in a public argument.