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Vitriol first, and now the bloodshed
Gunfire that wounds a member of Congress and kills six people punctuates a poisoning of the nation's political discourse.

It may have taken this the weekend shooting of an Arizona congresswoman and death of six innocent bystanders -- to prompt what some say should be a retreat from the vitriol governing the nation's political discourse.

As Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords clings to life in an Arizona hospital after a Saturday shooting spree in Tucson, four former Western New York congressmen agreed Sunday that one positive outcome may result. Though all of them say the incident essentially stems from the actions of a mentally deranged young man, they also emphasize that the Giffords shooting and related death of U.S. District Judge John M. Roll should give the nation pause.

It is time, they say, to take a breath.

"It's really sad that our political discourse has degenerated to the point where people take violent actions against elected officials," said former Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine, who represented the Southern Tier in the House from 1977 to 1987. "Both political parties have unfortunately started treating each other with a lack of respect. And the media -- cable television particularly -- drum up hatred and distrust to the extent that it's unfortunate."

Indeed, the talk shows and political pundits across the country paused Sunday to ask whether the nation's political negativity has gone too far. They pointed to vicious campaign ads by both parties, the harsh rhetoric of extremists on both sides, and the subsequent exploitation of political differences through partisan media and the Internet.

"It is causing us to question vitriolic debate and this type of language," said former Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda. "It's good we are engaging in this type of discussion."

All of the former congressmen interviewed Sunday recounted experiences involving extreme partisan behavior. Former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, recalled that Capitol police insisted he take security measures at his district office.

"Most of us had to deal with some kind of verbal threat," he said. "Thank goodness we never found ourselves really in harm's way."

And former Rep. Jack F. Quinn Jr., R-Hamburg, said the whole tone contributed to his decision not to seek a seventh term in 2004.

Quinn, now president of Erie Community College, said that trying to be a "moderate" marginalized him in the House Republican Conference. Other New York GOP moderates such as former Reps. Amo Houghton of Corning and Sherwood L. Boehlert of Utica have left Congress for the same reason, he said.

"I said at the time that I had had enough," Quinn said. "One reason was that the politics was so negative and personal that it was hard after campaigns to kiss and make up and do the government's work.

"The longer I'm away and see what's going on," he added, "the more comfortable I am with my decision."

This ugly time is far removed from the days when Reynolds -- now a Washington lobbyist -- recalled scrapping with former Chairman Roger I. Blackwell, D-Buffalo, on the floor of the Erie County Legislature. Later they would meet socially to hash over the day.

Reynolds pointed to when House leaders Robert H. Michel, R-Ill., and Thomas P. O'Neill, D-Mass., fought each other with mutual respect, as did New York Democratic Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink and Republican State Senate Majority Leader Warren M. Anderson during his days in the Assembly.

"It's an inability of men and women elected to a legislative body to defer to each other," he said. "It's very much lacking today."

All of those interviewed at least partly blamed 2 4/7 news media, the Keith Olbermanns and Rachel Maddows of the left and the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys of the right.

"The Sarah Palin focus has been 'Don't retreat -- reload,' " LaFalce said, referring to the former Alaska governor, 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee and current political commentator. "That creates an imagery in the minds of some individuals. I would hope Sarah Palin and others retreat from that type of imagery -- even if it's only the remotest cause."

It's all indicative, Quinn said, of a win-at-any-cost mentality.

"The campaign commercials have been extremely negative and extremely personal," he added.

All agree that the incident may force at least some introspection upon the nation, though none is yet convinced that it will change the situation. They point to the "civility conference" Houghton convened in Hershey, Pa., in 1997 to promote fellowship among his colleagues. "It's really not that complicated," Houghton said back then. "You can't go kicking a guy in the shins or poking someone in the eye and then try to work out deals about the future of the country."

Quinn said the recent events may stimulate positive conversation. He said he and Robert D. Gioia, president of the John R. Oishei Foundation, are discussing the possibility of sponsoring another civility conference in conjunction with the United States Association of Former Members of Congress at Chautauqua Institution.

"It's not confirmed yet," Gioia said, "but the venue would be perfect, and timing would be clearly appropriate."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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