By HOPPY KERCHEVAL

MORGANTOWN -- I miss Ronald Reagan.

The great conservative voice of modern times managed to be principled without being churlish. His ideas were rooted in reason, not resentment.

Reagan never seemed angry about the ways of Washington, rather he was confident in his belief that the great spirit of America that extended beyond the beltway was the strength of the country.

Washington's ways were errant, but not evil.

When Reagan said things like, "Government does not solve problems; it subsidizes them," he wasn't fostering animus toward Washington, rather he was illustrating in an almost cheerful manner that government doesn't have all the solutions.

I wonder if today even Reagan would be dismissed as "too nice a guy," perhaps suffering the same fate as Tim Pawlenty, whose congeniality is perceived as a weakness.

The other day, Republican Presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann described Washington as "vile and corrupt." That's red meat for some conservative Americans who believe the country is already in the handbasket and hell-bound because of the base beltway crowd.

Yes, the country is headed in the wrong direction, but is it accurate to say that one's political opponents in Washington are morally depraved and despicable?

Those are fightin' words and, as such, they should only be used when inviting conflict.

Consider Thomas Jefferson's declaration of 1776: "The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states."

And we know what happened after those words crossed the Atlantic.

Some of the political rhetoric of today, whether it's Bachmann's "vile and corrupt" Washington or Vice President Joe Biden's inflammatory remark that Tea Party Republicans "acted like terrorists" during the debt ceiling debate, establish verbal points of no return.

Once you have labeled a place "vile," how can you publicly ever consider it otherwise? If you say people act "like terrorists," can you ever hope to have a productive discussion with them?

The charged language undermines reasonableness and civility. No one wins arguments on merit. The sound bites loop continuously. Ideas are supplanted by tactics.

I anticipate the response by some today: we need a revolution in this country. But even Jefferson in his declaration urged caution. "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes."

One should not throw down the gauntlet casually.

It is evident many in the country are angry, but that doesn't mean the country's leaders should, themselves, respond in anger. One feeds on the other, ever escalating.

Political opportunists can ride the waves of discontent, but true leaders understand that ideas are greater than popular notions. Those leaders, secure in their beliefs, know they do not need angry hyperbole.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.

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