Saturday, September 19, 2009

Congressional Apology

Professor Joanne B. Freeman has written a useful reminder of the complex rhetorical history of Congressional insult and apology for the New York Times. She offers some observations useful for rhetorical scholars and citizens. She writes:

Congress has a long and storied culture of apology, to go along with its long and storied culture of insult — and . . . the two traditions are inextricably bound together. . . .

By publicly apologizing to his colleagues, a congressman not only paid obeisance to the dignity and order of the House or Senate, but he also upheld the civility of Congressional proceedings as a whole. This sentiment was perhaps explained best by Senator Louis McLane, a Jacksonian from Delaware, in an 1828 debate over the vice president’s right to call men to order. Written parliamentary rules were useful, he said, but the Senate’s tradition of “liberal comity” was “more efficient than any written rule.” What would preserve the Senate was “the great moral influence of the power of the body for its own preservation.” For this reason, the Congressional culture of insult was necessarily accompanied by one of apology. Whether it exists today remains an open question.

Joanne B. Freeman, "Joe Wilson's War," New York Times, 18 September 2009.

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