Former Arizona Rep. Shadegg On Political Discourse

Since the deadly mass shooting Saturday in Arizona, much has been made of the relationship between heated political rhetoric and actual, physical violence. On Monday, Robert Siegel spoke to Democratic Representative James Clyburn. Today, former Republican Rep. John Shadegg weighs in on the debate.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Since Saturday, much has been made of the relationship between heated political rhetoric and actual, physical violence. It's a conversation that began long before this weekend's tragic events, but it resurged on Saturday, due in part to the comments of Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik.

Sheriff CLARENCE DUPNIK (Pima County, Arizona): The rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government, about paranoia of how government operates, has impact on people, especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with.

SIEGEL: And we heard much the same argument yesterday on this program in my interview with House Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn.

Representative JAMES CLYBURN (Democrat, South Carolina): People hear things and feel that they can make a martyr out of themselves. Because of the discourse around the political arena, they sometimes react with ways that are socially unacceptable. But that does not absolve us.

SIEGEL: But there is an equally passionate refrain coming largely from conservatives, but not exclusively, that this kind of talk is: A, premature, given how little we know about Jared Loughner's motives; and that B, it is an affront to free speech.

I'm joined now by former Republican Congressman John Shaddeg of Arizona, who is joining us actually from Penn Station in New York. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN SHADEGG (Former Republican Representative, Arizona): Glad to be with you.

SIEGEL: And what do you make of the argument we just heard from Sheriff Dupnik, Congressman Clyburn, that heated political rhetoric can be downright dangerous, it can make people do violent things?

Mr. SHADEGG: Quite frankly, I think it's natural to expect some people to make that argument, but I believe it is, in fact, as you suggested, somewhat immature, and I think it does not excuse the individual involved.

I think you have to examine the entire political culture. I can make an argument that the frustration of this individual resulted from the Congress, quite frankly, not listening to the people over the last two years and, for example, passing very, very major legislation when a majority of Americans opposed it.

So are those who did that willing to take some blame for the reaction of or the impact on an unbalanced person or someone that is deranged, such as this shooter?

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm. But going back to actual rhetoric and to the ways in which people make their arguments, are there some comments, let's take for example Sharron Angle, the Nevada Senate candidate, who said in her campaign against Majority Leader Harry Reid that Americans angry with the state or the government might, at some point, resort to what she called Second Amendment remedies. She was widely criticized for that. Is that sort of thing beyond the pale, as far as you're concerned? Should leaders be saying don't talk that way?

Mr. SHADEGG: Certainly there are comments that are beyond the pale. I don't think I want to comment on that specific one or any other specific one. But I think politicians should be cautious in their rhetoric. I think they should try to be civil.

Congresswoman Giffords, because she was from my home state and in my delegation, was always civil and cheerful and upbeat when we talked, even when we disagreed philosophically.

But that raises the question not just of politicians, but what about of political commentators? What about the TV news shows where hype or excessive rhetoric is not only tolerated but in fact perhaps encouraged in order to get viewership?

Extreme rhetoric by politicians or the encouragement of extreme rhetoric by figures in the news media does not serve the nation well.

SIEGEL: But typically, people regard their opponents' rhetoric as extreme and their own as, you know, perhaps a bit strong but justified. You use the phrase to describe the Democrats' health care bill as full of Russian gulag, Soviet-style gulag health care. I mean, I think those of us who have read some Solzhenitsyn, I think you might concede that wasn't a literal comment that you were making. Perhaps it was, but over the top, possibly, a little extreme?

Mr. SHADEGG: Sure. It seems to me that sometimes you make a point, and you try to make it with emphasis, and perhaps you get carried away. I think we're all prone to that.

And I think that if one of the lessons we can draw from this senseless shooting and the senseless deaths that occurred is that we need to ratchet back that rhetoric and focus more on arguments, on the merits. Name-calling really doesn't accomplish anything. That would be a good thing to come out of this incident.

SIEGEL: So perhaps the discussion, even if you don't agree with what it's implying about who's responsible for what, not an unhealthy discussion, I hear you saying.

Mr. SHADEGG: Well, yeah. I think over-the-top rhetoric engaged in by any politicians, right or left, is just that, over the top. And I think this is a call for us to strive toward greater civility in all of our dialogue.

SIEGEL: Well, former Congressman John Shadegg, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. SHADEGG: My pleasure.

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