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Evidence continues to accumulate demonstrating the growing lack of civility in our society. Government, businesses, cities, schools, neighborhoods and families all exhibit this trend toward mean-spiritedness. Symptomatic of this condition are not only the rising incidence of hate crimes and the tragedies of Oklahoma City, Littleton and Conyers, but also the way our elected officials interact with each other.

Politicians of both parties flock to the TV talk shows to "have at" each other with no holds barred. When one opens a diatribe saying, "With all due respect," look out!

The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and attempts to cover it up, the unfettered and interminable Starr investigation into private behavior and the partisan impeachment process have all immunized us into believing this activity is to be expected.

The debate about Social Security, Medicare, campaign financing, tax reduction and even gun control has more to do with one party pummelling the other than with finding reasonable compromises.

Politics aside, it's no news that movies, TV sitcoms, soap operas, rock and rap lyrics, video games, etc., all portray the same kind of unpleasantness and disregard for the feelings of others. What our kids learn from such sources obviously goes beyond bad manners and the failure to say "please" and "thank you."

Journalists, lawyers, political consultants, ex-congressmen, former White House staffers and others interested in supplementing their income are snapped up by the talk shows, each trying to outdo the others in controversy.

The loud and mean-spirited brand of punditry can be seen on shows such as "Crossfire," "Crosstalk," "Equal Time," "Rivera Live," "Politically Incorrect," "Watch It!" and countless others.

Guests must have opposing viewpoints and a willingness to talk over and interrupt each other. If the subject matter is beyond their field of expertise, not to worry. Qualifications are secondary to celebrity and contentiousness. As for hosts or moderators, they are encouraged to appear to be losing control. Talk show participants may be soft-spoken or well-behaved off the air, but oh, how quickly they adjust to their expected roles as pit bulls!

Even PBS is not immune. Ken Bode, moderator of "Washington Week in Review," which for years has presented a sober discussion of the week's events, recently left the program after being told that management wanted more "attitude."

I am reminded of President Clinton's State of the Union address this year. Reps. Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, eager to register their disapproval but not content to sit on their hands, mugged for the cameras, snickering and smirking. Now, that's "attitude." So much for non-partisanship in politics. To extrapolate: so much for civility in our society.

There was a time, a few decades ago, when our elected officials and public figures were generally looked upon as role models. Sens. John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, and former Sens. Warren Rudman and George Mitchell have demonstrated time and time again by their non-partisan activities that they belong in such company. But their ranks are thinning. The elections of 2000 will no doubt achieve a new low in negativism and dirty tricks.

As for the nightly news, it is to be hoped that Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Jim Lehrer, Bernard Shaw and Judy Woodruff will maintain their traditional formats. Those of us who prefer our news straight and without sensationalism will stay tuned, and will look elsewhere for entertainment.

RICHARD KAMPRATH is a retired Marine Midland Bank trust officer living in the Town of Tonawanda.
For writer guidelines for columns, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Opinion Pages Guidelines, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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