Howard Baker: 'The Other Guy May Be Right'

Is it just me, or is everyone in America suddenly spring-loaded in the hacked-off position? Unfortunately, we lawyers see it every day. Walk in to any courthouse in the Volunteer State, and you will hear lawyers calling each other liars or horse thieves or no-count scoundrels and seeking sanctions for discovery disputes that ought to be resolved in a phone call. And it's not just lawyers who are downright rude. You see it these days in politics, sports " and even show business.

President Obama's recent speech on health care reform to a joint session of Congress was interrupted by a South Carolina Congressman who screamed, "You lie!" While listeners of the Rush Limbaugh Show may find this hard to believe, this sort of outburst has never happened before during a presidential address to Congress, not even when Nixon was president.

Not to be undone, a Democrat Congressman took the floor of the House a few days later and thoughtfully suggested that opponents of President Obama's health care proposal "want you to die ... soon!"

In sports, the Women's Semi-Finals at this year's U.S. Open Tennis Tournament ended abruptly when Serena Williams threatened to shove a tennis ball down a line judge's throat. Williams also used vulgar language that would make a sailor blush and made John McEnroe look like a gentleman by comparison.

And in show business, rap artist Kanye West interrupted country music singer Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the recent MTV Video Music Awards, hijacking the microphone to announce that Beyonce actually should have gotten the award. I have to admit that prior to this incident, I didn't have the slightest idea who Kanye West is, inasmuch as I regard "rap music" as an oxymoron, like "jumbo shrimp" or "working vacation." And not surprisingly, I did not see the MTV Awards, as I was watching the Bears and the Packers on ESPN. Nevertheless, the morning after the MTV Awards, I saw the film clips of Kanye ripping the microphone from Taylor's precious little country hands.

Now I have watched a lot of the awards programs during my lifetime, including the Oscars, the Emmys, the Tonys, and the ESPYs. But I have never seen an acceptance speech interrupted by another entertainer claiming that the recipient should not have gotten the award. I once saw an Indian Princess announce that Marlon Brando was turning down the Oscar for Best Actor, but that's an entirely different thing.

I still vividly remember Sally "Gidget" Fields screaming, "You like me! You like me!" when she got the Oscar for her performance as Norma Rae. I can only imagine what poor Gidget would have done had Jane Fonda jumped on the stage and said, "Gidget, I mean, Sally, you don't deserve this! I should have gotten the Award for my performance in The China Syndrome!"

But nothing would surprise me now that everyone in America is acting like a bunch of professional wrestlers.

Before you interrupt this column by screaming out, "You're not funny, Haltom!" or threatening to shove a tennis ball down this issue of the Journal, please be patient and hear me out. I have a suggestion on how we can return civility to our profession and, in fact, to every aspect of American life.

Actually, the suggestion is not mine. It's the thought of a man who is a senior statesman of the Tennessee Bar Association, Howard Baker.

During his distinguished career, Howard Baker has worn many hats: United States Senator, Senate Majority Leader, White House Chief of Staff, Ambassador to Japan, and of course, Lawyer. In every role he has played both in public and private life, he has been the personification of civility. Whether he was on the floor of the United States Senate, in the Oval Office, or in a Tennessee courtroom, he has always been a tireless advocate for what he believes. But he has never taken a cheap shot at opposing counsel or at an opponent in a political campaign.

While he has often questioned the wisdom of Democrats, he has never questioned their patriotism. And he has never gone on cable TV to denounce as "evil" folks with different points of view.

And insofar as I know, he has never appeared on "Dancing with the Stars."

I have been fortunate to hear Senator Baker speak on several occasions, and I will never forget something I heard him say a few years ago. He said that the hero of his life was his father, Howard Baker Sr., who was a great trial lawyer, as well as a United States Congressman. Senator Baker said of his father, "He taught me that you should always go through life working on the assumption that the other guy may be right."

That bears repeating. You should always go through life working on the assumption that the other guy may be right.

That statement captures the essence of civility. It doesn't mean you don't stand up for what you believe. It doesn't mean you can't be a fierce advocate for your clients and causes. It just means you go into any conflict with a notion that your opponent may, in fact, be right, and you treat your opponent accordingly.

What an incredible idea. And how wonderfully different our profession of law and our nation as a whole would be if we all worked on that basic premise.

You know, the other guy may be right.


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.