Two former presidents — one Republican, the other a Democrat — will chair a new national institute to promote civility in political discourse in the city where U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was severely wounded in a shooting rampage that left six dead, officials announced Monday.
The National Institute for Civil Discourse will be run by the University of Arizona. Former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton will serve as its honorary co-chairmen.
“Our country needs a setting for political debate that is both frank and civil, and the National Institute for Civil Discourse can make a significant contribution toward reaching this goal,” Bush said in a prepared statement.
Clinton said the institute “can elevate the tone of dialogue in our country, and in so doing, help us to keep moving toward ‘a more perfect union.'”
Giffords, D-Tucson, was shot in the head during a meet-and-greet Jan. 8 outside a local grocery store. A federal judge and five others were killed. Giffords was among 13 people injured.
While it is widely suspected that Jared Loughner, 22, who faces charges in the shooting, suffers from mental illness, many have focused on the bitter political climate in which the assault occurred.
Shortly before the rampage, Giffords herself wrote an e-mail to Trey Grayson, director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, complaining of the incendiary rhetoric in her last campaign, and asking if his group couldn’t do something.
“Well, today the congresswoman’s own hometown university has decided to do just that,” said Fred DuVal, vice chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents. “And Trey Grayson … has joined OUR board.”
The institute’s goal is to develop programs, stage conferences, design curricula and encourage research intended to promote more civility in the political arena, said its director, Brint Milward. For instance, he said it could back research on such areas as “cognitive science and how the brain responds to continual sort of outrage and how do you keep this going. Sort of, how do you keep a great democracy going when everyone is always ready to man the barricades?”
The institute — funded in part by a grant from Tucson-based health care provider Providence Service Corp. and to be housed in one of firm’s downtown buildings — would cooperate with similar organizations and institutions across the country, Milward said, “to create an archipelago of organizations that want to promote a different style of politics.”
DuVal said the institute might even be able to influence “the dark arts of cable TV.” Greta Van Susteren, host of the Fox News Channel’s “On the Record,” is among those named to the institute’s board.
Milward said the institute’s first event will be an executive forum that will bring together “a very diverse and very well-known group of individuals, all of whom have thought deeply about the problems of our politics and the benefits of a more civil discourse that would bring us help in governing the United States more effectively.” He would not say when that would be or who would be participating.
One of those killed Jan. 8 was Christina-Taylor Green, a 9-year-old girl who went to see Giffords because she was interested in politics and democracy. DuVal said it was appropriate that this announcement came on Presidents Day, and just a few blocks from where Barack Obama called on Americans to work toward a country worthy of Christina’s hopes.
“We here uniquely know what he meant,” he said. “And we here begin that work.”