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Public service and civil discourse

I agree with the recent remarks of the U.S. attorney general that public service – in the context of law – is not only an honor and a job but also a calling.

To this end, the state funeral of Sen. Robert Dole, a public servant, personally touched me. I also think of the words of John Wesley, who propagated Methodism in the United States. All of this requires, in my experience, a special kind of commitment to conversation and quality of character that even the best of us can find a challenge to wield daily.

I have had some amazing adventures with each of my guide dogs, building a fruitful career. A combined lesson exists from my guide dogs. My dogs do not care if I cannot see. (Who needs that anyway?) My dogs do not even care if I am a confused far-right Democrat or a soft-left Republican. They do, however, care if I treat them properly with honor and with respect.

In 2015, I served as a visiting fellow at a public library: The Robert J. Dole Institute for Politics. That experience shaped me then as now. A 2009 panel on which he and his wife, who also was a U.S. senator, served and which I listened to recently reinforced my admiration for these public servants. With an ardent respect for the U.S. Senate and its traditions, Robert Dole often referred – even to his vehement political opponents – as his friends.

As one solution to our divided discourse, all public servants should partake of a beverage together. We must intentionally chat with those who do not think like us, or look like us. It is in this way that we can help quell the nasty nature of our public discourse. Considering the current problems of both distrust of our governmental institutions and the corrosive ways in which people now engage in discourse, this demands that lawyers be the criers of civility and of public service.

I try to look to examples like Sen. Elizabeth Dole for proper conduct. At the panel, it struck me that she did not hate the men who doubted her because of her gender but used her character and humor to respond to their bias.

I have been the recipient of more than one form of discrimination, sometimes wanting to disdain those who would limit my opportunities. I often recall how, at an appeals panel I chaired, one of the attorneys placed a photo on a screen without ever informing me in advance. How I grapple with this and remain positive remains a task on which I work.

As to humor, this current dog partner reminds me of the importance of play and of humor in a challenging public life. During COVID-19, people with disabilities, including those who collaborate with guide dogs, have encountered specific disability-rich challenges, requiring a bit of self-deprecation and wisdom that the world does not revolve around us. Whenever I am too long on the computer, he nudges me to play with him and his stuffed dragon. (Thanks Santa!)

Despite the challenges of our times, it is the first duty of all citizens to contribute to this great republic.

While modern tools provide us with more data, information, and messaging not available to these two senators during their public service, those tools pose more risk for negatively skewing our public life.

Let us be mindful of the power of words  and the tone in which they are delivered.  Public servants owe it to the greater good to err on the side of respect and emulate that which brings us closer together — our humanity and our commonalities.  May our leaders take note of all the things that unite us.

This closing thought may be a Pollyannaish hope. I urge that, during the ongoing session, Democrats and Republicans do more to listen to each other in better service of the republic.

Gary C. Norman, Esq. LL.M. is the past chair of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. He can be reached at (410) 241-6745.