It's a scene that would be difficult to imagine today.

Two men from different political parties running for the same seat in the Wyoming Legislature in the 1970s needed to travel to campaign in another community within their legislative district. So the opposing candidates hopped in a car and traveled together, splitting up after they arrived at their destination for some door-to-door campaigning, then reuniting at the agreed-upon time for the ride home.

One of these men was my grandfather, Hight Proffit, a Democratic legislator and rancher from Uinta County. The other was his Republican challenger, Harry Lee Harris, an Evanston attorney. Whatever political differences they had, they also were friends who enjoyed spending time together. So the idea of carpooling to the Bridger Valley for some separate campaigning seemed entirely reasonable to them.

In today's polarized climate, the idea of political opponents traveling together to campaign is almost unfathomable.

Actually, it was unusual even in the 1970s for candidates to do what those two did. Their continuing friendship while running against each other for political office is primarily a testament to the kind of people they were.

But I do think it shows that previous generations had a much better handle on civility, at least when it comes to politics, than we do today.

I offer this story as an example of the type of conduct being encouraged by a new statewide initiative called Civility Matters, being organized by the Wyoming Humanities Council. The Star-Tribune has joined the initiative with a commitment to publish monthly guest columns from a variety of authors encouraging civility in public discourse. The first, by Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources Director Milward Simpson, appears on today's Forum page. They're scheduled to continue through August 2011.

Civility Matters also will include statewide book and film discussions; a publication with selected readings; a summer public discussion series round the state; a community grant initiative; and a statewide tour by a national humanities scholar.

A number of organizations are involved in the initiative, which is funded in part by the state Legislature through the Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Wyoming Humanities Council. Other supporters include people and groups from a variety of political stripes.

Robust debate over important issues is one of the things that make our nation and state great. But too often these days, public debate deteriorates into name-calling and demonization. I'm particularly bothered when people accuse their political foes of being unpatriotic or "hating America." Conflict resolution and compromise seem to have become something of a lost art, particularly at the national level.

While the example of my grandfather and his friend/opponent causes me to long for the days of more civil political debate, I understand enough about history to know that there never really was a "golden age" when everyone was nice to one another. Heated disagreement has been a hallmark of American politics from the start. Wyoming history is replete with examples of public disagreements that disintegrated even into violence, from the Rock Springs Chinese Massacre to the Johnson County Cattle War.

Still, history shows that our state and nation work best when political opponents put aside their partisan interests and collaborate in the best interests of society as a whole. That's much less likely to happen when civility is left out of the equation.

Do you have a question or a comment for Editor Chad Baldwin? You can call him at 266-0545, or send e-mail to chad.baldwin@trib.com.

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