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Civility is Nice. But Could it Put You to Sleep?

Politeness ensues around the roundtable.

Even the dinner table oozed civil discourse.

A question to ask ourselves: Can civil, polite conversation still be entertaining?

If you’re cable news, the land of shouting loudmouths, not likely. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Wednesday evening was meant to be civil. What began as cocktails on the lawn in the backyard led to dinner and darkness falling over Georgetown’s historical Halcyon House. Sponsored by Liberty Mutual and organized by GuestBooker.com’s George Uribe and Peter Zorich, both longtime TV producers, the event mixed politicians and journalists in an unusual format of hypothetical situations. Sitting around a gorgeous round wooden table, participants were put in roles and asked to debate faux scenarios — without cussing one another out.

Easier said than done, right?

The Players: Reps. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WVa.), NJ‘s Congressional Reporter Major Garrett, Catherine “Kiki” Mclean, former Senior Adviser to Hillary Clinton‘s Presidential Campaign and founder of the Congressional Civility Caucus, and former mayor Adrian Fenty. The moderator: Former NBC News anchor John Seigenthaler.

But first, a dinner flowing with red wine, followed by jumbo lump Maryland crabcake, Springfield Farm lamb loin, warm pineapple upsidedown cake with coconut sorbet and coffee. A long country wooden table was set as though the guests were royalty. It was that beautiful and would have been offensive to even consider saying something unbecoming. Every object was brought in expressly for the event and even Martha Stewart might have been impressed. Perfection was long sheer white curtains from towering ceilings, colorful hanging lights,  fancy goblets, unusual silverware and oak place settings that looked to be freshly sliced off trees and flown in from the forest just for the occasion.

The scene was set for an event that allowed for something so rare in Washington: candor. And something else: Although the situations were invented, each participant eventually shared personal details as the evening wore on. Who would have thought it possible for an event based on phony hypotheticals to allow D.C. types who have to watch every word they say to open up?

The first topic: The great divide between the political parties.

Kingston talked social media — “You can insulate yourself in your chat room and your Facebook.” And Fenty attacked the media. “It’s the 24-hour news cycle,” he said. To which everyone laughed. “It’s the media’s fault,” Seigenthaler said, partially mocking him. Fenty glanced at his watch and replied, “Look at how long it took me to say that!” McClean added this: “The great moments in our country came with bipartisanship. I would also say there are minority extreme voices at both ends.”

Hypothetical #1. A potential campaign in which one candidate gets news of drunken photographs of his opponent. The campaign is three weeks out. The pictures will get out with few or no fingerprints. You’re the campaign strategist. What does he do? Garrett: “As a campaign strategist, certainly.” Fenty: “Winning elections drive so much of the incivility. If you’re goal is to win you’re going to do what it takes.” McLean: “The issue is, is there relevance?” Kingston says release the pictures and proudly so. “My thinking is you shouldn’t let someone do your bidding. I’d say, ‘We released the pictures and you’re damn right’” we did. Capito: “You have to be able to live with yourself.” Fenty: “The question to me is, how does it affect the general public? They’re turned off by it.”

On occasion, participants slipped back into their real-life roles. “Our job is not about having amnesia about what you say,” said Garrett, eyeing the politicians around the table. He continued, “No one cares why I got out of cable news, but I was a reporter surrounded by people who were loud and angry.” Now, he says, he has more conversations filled with depth. McLean joked, “I’ll get an escort on the way out to my car.”

During the course of the debates, personal details arose. Capito shared that scandal involving her father came into her campaign and she had to decide whether it was appropriate for her to run. Fenty said during both of his mayoral campaigns, rumors swirled about him beating his wife. Despite his knock on the media earlier, he said, “The media never ran it. I think there’s integrity and rules that they follow.”

The bottom line? Washington may need more of these roundtables, as evidenced by the rapt guests who fixated on what participants had to say and laughed along with them. But don’t tell that to Robert Gleason Jr., Chairman of the Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania, who was conked out on a sofa for most of the event. Someone might want to tell him when an event like this is being filmed, pssst…you might not want to nod off.

Adrian Fenty and John Seigenthaler.

Extravagant table decor.

See more photographs and post roundtable reaction…

McLean: “I found it restful.”

Kingston: “I think it’s nice to be able to complete a sentence because I haven’t been able to do that in three years.”

Capito: “Oh very relaxed, easy. I don’t want to react. I don’t want to give him anything.”

Seigenthaler: “It was fun for me. When you get smart people like this around a table sometimes interesting things happen.”

Debra Cabral, Executive V.P., Porter Novelli: “I thought it was one of the most interesting and unique events I have been to in Washington recently. I look forward to hearing more engaged dialogue on the topic of civility in public discourse.

 

A sliver of Major Garrett enjoying his dinner.

The film crew helps Capito get ready for filming.

Rep. Kingston, Kiki McLean, and Garrett at the roundtable.

Fenty and Seigenthaler.

 

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