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Searching for civility: Panelists talk politics, tweeting, athletes kneeling

Former Wyoming governor Mike Sullivan answers a question during a public forum titled ‘In Search of Civility’ while Nancy Tia Brown, the former mayor of Cody, listens. The panel also included former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson and Dossie Overfield, who served as the chair of the Cody school board. Former Wyoming governor Mike Sullivan answers a question during a public forum titled ‘In Search of Civility’ while Nancy Tia Brown, the former mayor of Cody, listens. The panel also included former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson and Dossie Overfield, who served as the chair of the Cody school board. Tribune photo by Tessa Baker

At a time when common ground is hard to find on a football field, much less in Washington, a panel of Wyomingites tackled some of the toughest issues facing America at a Sunday forum.

Among them: the president’s tweets and athletes kneeling during the national anthem.

“You have rights to not watch them, not buy tickets, not do all these things ... those are all individual choices, but overall, the nation is going to figure out where they want to go with this,” said Dossie Overfield, former chair of the Cody school board. “It’s going to take some time; it’s not going to be solved over night ...”

No matter how divided Americans may be on this or other issues, panelists talked about ways to civilly engage with others.

The panel — which included former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, former Cody Mayor Nancy Tia Brown, former Gov. Mike Sullivan and Overfield — discussed the importance of compromise, listening and talking with others face-to-face.

“I think the thing I see is that we don’t get to know each other,” said Simpson.

People sit in front of a device, “looking like a vacant hollow ... and sending out something nasty,” he said.

“If you don’t get to know a person, or at least have talked with them, nothing is going to work in this country,” Simpson continued. “Especially if you can just bang away on an electronic device or do your Instagram with what you had for breakfast and all that crap.”

Brown politely added: “Senator Simpson, though, in the defense of younger people who are ... more inclined to use social media, we have to be civil with them, too.”

Sunday’s discussion, titled “In Search of Civility,” was organized by the local group Wyoming Rising — Northwest. Over 165 people attended the public forum at the Buffalo Bill Center of West, and roughly 30 were turned away at the door after no open seats remained in the Coe Auditorium. Steven Cranfill, who recently retired as a district court judge, served as the moderator.

“I think we can all agree that without civil discourse, there will be no meaningful discussion or resolution,” said Harriet Bloom-Wilson, CEO of Wyoming Rising — Northwest.

Civility starts at an early age, Brown said.

“I think it all begins at home,” she said. “I think that’s where people see their very first examples and that’s where they learn … I think it’s very important that we raise our children the way we want them to be.”

Sullivan, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Ireland after two terms as govenor, agreed.

“Every time my brothers and I left our house, my dad said to us, ‘Be decent,’” Sullivan recalled. “And that’s civility, and I’ve never forgotten those instructions.”

Politics is probably the most classic example of where civility has gone wrong, he said.

“It’s my belief that it stems largely from money — unaccountable money — a desire for power, too much ambition and 24-hour news,” Sullivan said.

When a new party takes over in Congress, you’d think they’d realize how bad it was to be in the minority and adjust “in a civil way that brings results to a bipartisan discussion,” Sullivan said.

“It doesn’t seem to be happening that way,” he said. “It escalates: They were doing this to us, so we’re going to do this to them ...”

“We’ve ended up where civility and compromise are four-letter words,” he added. “And we can’t let that happen, because they are the yeast of democracy, whether it’s at home or whether it’s in Congress.”

Sullivan said that unless there’s bipartisanship, “we’re just going to have the deep freeze we’re in.”

He said part of the problem is that U.S. senators and representatives come home almost every week. Another chunk of their time is spent raising money.

“... when is there going to be time, in that narrow legislative time, to be bipartisan? You’re never going to develop a discussion with the other side if you don’t even have the time to develop your position with your own party,” Sullivan said.

“It’s time, and it’s personal contact, it’s trust — and it’s not being dictated by ambition and money,” Sullivan added. “Somehow we have to break that.”

Panelists also said it’s not just about Washington — Wyoming folks need to get involved, too.

“If you really want to make some changes, you have got to be part of the change. Don’t just sit back and watch,” Overfield said.

Simpson said he and his wife, Ann, decided that instead of just sitting around complaining, they decided to serve as precinct committee leaders in the Park County Republican Party.

“So pick your party and get in the game,” he said. “Don’t just howl into the vapors. That’s not going to get you anywhere. Carrying a sign won’t get you anywhere either.”

He added too many people “are sitting on the sidelines watching their favorite program, which embraces everything they believe in, and they don’t care a damn about the other side.”

Brown said it’s important to take time to listen to both sides, and also find common ground. She also said name-calling “has no place.”

When name-calling, demeaning and demonization are routine in politics or life, “then we’re moving the wrong way,” Sullivan said.

After panelists talked about civility for more than an hour, the final question from the audience was blunt: “Can we be specific? We have a president who seems to be the antithesis of everything you have described. He doesn’t model civility or respect. What do we do?”

Sullivan said he agreed with the content of the question.

“And I worry that that is leading us in the wrong direction, so I would say specifically, we can sit here and talk about civility. We can understand what it is; we can teach our children what civility is, so that they recognize incivility when they see it and are willing to speak up against it,” he said.

Sullivan said President Donald Trump is his president, and he wants him to be successful, but one of his biggest disappointments “is that people aren’t willing to stand up and say, ‘That is not acceptable.’”

“And it needs to come from our leaders,” Sullivan said. “We can’t have so much riding on politics that we’re willing to throw our values aside ... I believe there are people elected to positions that are sitting on their hands.”

Simpson said people “you really respect” support Trump, and “they’re not nuts,” but he also called the president “erratic” and noted that “I said in the primary that you could give him an enema and bury him in a shoebox.”

He suggested that Trump should have breakfast before tweeting, rather than getting on Twitter at 3 a.m. after watching cable news.

“It’s funny, but it ain’t funny,” Simpson said. “And now to take on the athletes and the NFL and the national basketball ... when you have a guy like LeBron James calling the president a bum, where’s the civility? It’s going to get worse.”

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