December 30, 2005
What Readers Taught Me
By E. J. Dionne Jr.

MIDDLETOWN, R.I. -- Boy, are we angry about politics these days. And that's true on all sides. This is a testament to our freedom, and it's exhilarating in its way, but it's not always pretty.

It's the time to give thanks to the thousands of people who have written their passionate responses to columns over the year. Critics, bless them all, are good for your sense of humility. I learned from a reader from Boulder, Colo., that my ``hypocrisy is disgusting,'' while another reader couldn't ``help but wonder which elementary school Mr. Dionne attends.'' I appreciated the polite use of the ``Mr.'' Someone else wrote: ``Your article is ill-informed or simply wrong on almost every issue it touches,'' which made me wonder exactly which issue I got right.

That last comment was about the Terri Schiavo case. Few other questions aroused such passions. The mail was heavy on both sides, often from people with powerful stories about painful decisions they had to make on behalf of loved ones.

One critic of my view, from San Antonio, spoke of a brother-in-law who spent 20 years in a persistent vegetative state. ``My family and I are haunted by what Terri Schiavo must have gone through,'' he wrote. ``I can't claim to know the motivation of all of Terri defenders, but I know that at least some of them were motivated only by compassion and humanity and the dread of her suffering.'' Whatever any of us thinks about how politicians handled that case, that reader speaks for many.

Because the matters at stake cut so close personally, columns on moral and social issues tend to draw more response than, say, those about economics. But there were two notable and politically revealing exceptions in 2005.

When I wrote against the terrible, pro-credit-industry bankruptcy bill, there was an outpouring from fellow critics of the bill, including a number of Republicans. I heard from many forced into (or near) bankruptcy by high medical bills. ``We are all just one or two illnesses away from poverty,'' one reader wrote.

I particularly liked the suggestion from a reader in Denver who wrote: ``If it were up to me, I would pass a law that said all laws being passed must clearly identify the winners, losers and the amounts involved.'' Memo to politicians: Revisit the bankruptcy issue.

And without beating a deservedly dead horse, my mailbag suggested why the president's Social Security privatization proposal foundered. Normally, critical columns about President Bush call forth a hard rain of electronic brickbats from his many loyal supporters. On Social Security, the energy was with his opponents. Many wrote with great specificity -- often from personal experience -- about how important it was to save the existing system.

There is, however, one issue on which the country longs for a less polarized discussion: abortion. A column on the efforts of Tom Suozzi, a county executive in New York state, to encourage us to reduce the number of abortions rather than make abortion illegal drew -- and this is very rare -- an overwhelmingly positive response. There's something going on out there.

My conservative readers taught me that there is still a lot of skepticism toward Sen. John McCain among activists on the right. Responding to a sympathetic column I wrote about McCain, one reader instructed me as follows: ``Because you are not one of us, you may have difficulty understanding what I am about to write, but I encourage you to read carefully -- John McCain will never win the Republican nomination.'' Another reader referred to McCain as ``an evil Democrat.'' That would come as a surprise to a reader from Apple Valley, Minn., who said that McCain ``only looks 'moderate' right now because the Bushies are such complete psychos!''

Ah, yes, the president and his people have a lot of enemies out there, but his friends are just as exercised. A reader from San Diego offered a view that was repeated in many different forms: ``Most liberals and some Democrats hate this president and will do anything to bring him down, including siding with terrorists against the president.''

And here is where I start worrying about our national mood. I don't mind being assailed myself -- even by a theologically minded reader who called me a ``badly catechized Catholic.'' (Blame me, not the nuns and priests who taught me!) But when big chunks of the country begin to view their political adversaries as something close to traitors, we have arrived at a very dangerous time. For this badly catechized Catholic, it's a reason to pray hard for something better next year.

© 2005, Washington Post Writers Group

E. J. Dionne Jr.

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