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Who ruined Washington? Vote here

House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills and Washington stripper Fanne Foxe, known as the Argentina Stripper

When South Carolina's Joe Wilson pointed his finger at President Obama and shouted out on the House floor, "You lie!" it arguably marked a new low in American politics. It also exposed the essential quality of politics these days -- in which the two major parties are dominated by the extreme wings and the middle is left without a voice.

How did Washington get so coarse?

Perhaps it was Brian Lamb, with his C-SPAN cameras, who lifted a veil on the town's secrets, unleashing a new generation of media trainers and posturing politicians. Or maybe it was Fanne Foxe, the Argentine stripper who jumped into the Tidal Basin when her date, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills, was arrested for drunk driving. Their escapades helped end an era of media protection for politicians' private behavior. Private behavior had made it to the police blotter, and ever since scandal has bred cynicism about Washington.

I have another theory about who's responsible. In an opinion piece in this morning's Times, I suggested that it was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In his savvy understanding that running against Washington would be more advantageous for his brew of vulnerable freshmen, Gingrich changed the congressional calendar, sending them home every weekend. So Washington was no longer a place of comity, no longer a town where folks fought all day on the political battlefield and then broke bread together in the evenings.

Read the piece here and let us know who you think stripped politics of its civility.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Wilbur Mills with Fanne Foxe, a stripper known as the "Argentine Firecracker," outside the Pilgrim Theater in Washington, D.C. in 1974. Credit: Associated Press

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Comments () | Archives (12)

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While the subject of the piece is worthy, naming one name is
disingenous, at best.
Call out the offenders on each side, but blaming one man ( Gingrich ) is ridiculous.
Perhaps a better quiz would be to ask which party has been the most viscious, the most vocal in their vitriol ?

Anyone who has studied American history and politics knows that American politics have always been personal and venomous. Take a look at the attacks made in the campaign between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Or the attacks on Lincoln. Or Reagan. Or countless others. There is nothing new here. Politics in America have always been a blood sport. Its a First Amendment thing.

I've heard this refrain before and it just goes to show how staggeringly blind the Left is. We had five years of filth heaped on Bush (not to mention Palin) and not a word of protest the MSM. And then Wilson yells "you lie" (an admittedly oafish action)...and the MSM has a hissy fit.

I'd like to remind the dork who wrote this article of how the Dems booed and hissed Bush's State of the Union address. But...I'm sure he would say that was perfectly OK. You see, if the Left does it, it's gooood. If the Right does the same thing it's baaaaad.

Or perhaps DEMOCRAT Bill Clinton and his escapades; or any KENNEDY with their drunken, loutish behavior; or little Johnny Edwards, lying DEMOCRAT with his not-reported-by-the-Times LOVE CHILD; or disgraced DEMOCRAT
Gray Davis;

Corruption crossed all parties, unless viewed from the perspective of FAR LEFT
TOADIES from Top of the Ticket.

I blame Henry Clay for developing a political party so corrupt and detrimental to the nation that it's vile manipulation of the political process is only just now bearing witness his party's own demise.

It was Ted Kennedy and his vile statement on Robert Bork. That such falsehoods could get traction is where the democrats learned they could get away with lies and not be held accountable.

Conspicously absent is the father of the modern word for personal attacks, bork, Ted Kennedy.

Who cares? I can't believe the time wasted on Joe Wilson's outburst. Was he wrong? Initially I thought yes but on second thought, why? This outburst and similar comments by both party members in the past are pretty tame compared to what goes on in other democratic nations and even our own in the distant past. The Democrats thought it was so important that they backburnered the health care debate to respond to this "serious breach of etiquete".

Yeah, what P. Hinton said. Only the truly ignorant think politics in 2009 are any different than they've always been...the disturbing part is that now these ignorant people are paid to blog about politics!

Who poisoned the political landscape? I point to:

Jim Wright: Speaker of the House 1987-1989
In 1954, he was elected to Congress from Texas's 12th congressional district, which included Weatherford and was based in Fort Worth. He would be re-elected fourteen times, gradually rising in prominence in the party and in Congress. He was elected House Majority Leader by one vote in December 1976, serving there until 1987, when he was elected the Speaker of the House. In 1988, he chaired the party's convention that nominated Michael Dukakis for president.

In the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, Jim Wright is known for the Wright Amendment, a contentious law he sponsored that restricted air travel out of Dallas's secondary airport, Love Field.

Wright became the target of an inquiry by the House Ethics Committee. Their report in early 1989 implied that he had used bulk purchases of his vanity book, Reflections of a Public Man, to earn speaking fees in excess of the allowed maximum, and that his wife, Betty, was given a job and perks to avoid the limit on gifts. Faced with an increasing loss of effectiveness, he resigned as Speaker on May 31, 1989, effective upon the selection of a successor. On June 6, the Democratic caucus brought his Speakership to an end by selecting his replacement, Tom Foley, and on June 30 he resigned from his seat in Congress.

The incident itself was controversial and was a part of the increasing partisan infighting that has plagued the Congress ever since. The original charges were filed by Newt Gingrich in 1988 and their effect propelled Gingrich's own career advancement to Minority Whip and, seven years later, to the Speaker's chair itself. They (the charges) may have originally been part of a response to Democratic efforts that had forced Edwin Meese's resignation (July 5, 1988) as Attorney General or the rejection of Senator John Tower's (in 1989) nomination as Secretary of Defense. (I myself add the "Borking" of Judge Bork (1987) to the list of issues that poisoned the political landscape. They all happened under Wright's take-no-prisoners style of politics.)

Has the author forgotten the Tower and Thomas and Bork confirmation hearings or the constant villifications of Pelosi and Reid? One could go on and on? What says the author? John Astorina

I agree with many of the posters.

Nasty political attacks have been with us since the Washington Administration when the rivalry between Hamilton and Jefferson exploded.

Don't forget how Senator Charles Sumner was attacked at his desk in the U.S. Senate and severely injured by Congressman Brooks in 1856. Could you imagine anything like that today.

Name calling has always been a popular political pastime. However, the modern "Era of Nasty" can be said to have begun with Ted Kennedy's attack on Robert Bork.


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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