Has anyone else around here noticed how vitriolic the subject of politics has become? Back when I was growing up in the 1950s I was told by my parents not to talk about religion with people. Politics was fine, and it was even fine when it involved religion, as it did in the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy election. You could be a Protestant for Nixon or a Catholic for Kennedy, and you could argue your point with the other side.

You could argue, but you didn’t have to shout over the other person to be heard. And when the argument was over you didn’t have to accuse the other person of being un-American or a “wacko” because he or she happened to disagree with you.

All that seems different these days.

But — with a little effort and a little patience — it doesn’t have to be that way, as I discovered during a pleasant meal on Christmas Day at the home of friends who also invited their daughter and her fiance, a Marine just back from Iraq, and two neighbors, a lawyer and an advertising man, both of whom revealed themselves to be Republicans.

Politics came up before dinner was even on the table when the subject turned to healthcare. The Senate version of the healthcare reform bill had just passed and that didn’t please the Republicans. “I don’t like the idea of having to pay for thugs and deadbeats,” said one.

While I consider myself an independent voter, and as a small business owner have publicly railed against big government on several occasions, I nevertheless defended the idea of some sort of healthcare reform. I cited the example of many of the people who deliver this newspaper to your office. They aren’t thugs, and they certainly aren’t deadbeats. In fact they cobble together an existence by toiling day and night seven days a week, delivering papers for a half dozen different papers, not one of which gives them enough hours in a week to qualify for health insurance.

What about them, I asked the Republicans. Wouldn’t we all be better off if hardworking people like that had access to some affordable health care coverage? I didn’t get an answer, but I didn’t get shouted at either.

Then the conversation turned to Iraq. Our soldier was on the other side of the room, unfortunately, when our Republicans stated their conviction that, all recent reporting notwithstanding, they still believed that the invasion of Iraq had been the smart thing to do. Among the reasons: That Saddam Hussein really did have weapons of mass destruction, contrary to press reports.

That one sounded like a potential argument over semantics. I let it pass and we all moved onto dessert. Still no shouting.

The next topic of discussion left me befuddled. If I were a guest on a cable news show I would have had to either a.) admit my ignorance of the subject (and get de-listed from the A list of invitees); or b.) start shouting about the presence of “wing nuts” in the Republican right (and get A-listed to even more shows).

Here’s the story line, as presented by my GOP dinnermates: Speaking of stories that the liberal media have either twisted or ignored (see the weapons of mass destruction discussion above), have you heard that President Obama has compromised our nation’s sovereignty by signing an executive order allowing Interpol free rein in its operations in the United States? Because of Obama’s executive order, signed on December 17, Interpol would be able to arrest American citizens at will and extradite them to foreign countries — all without adhering to any of our constitutional safeguards.

I never had heard of it. No surprise, my Republican friends countered, because no mainstream (i.e. liberal) media had reported it. But it had happened, they assured me, and there were hundreds of references to it on the Internet, and at least four articles posted online, as well, including one by Liz Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president.

I wondered why in the world Obama would want to be the first president to cede our sovereignty to a foreign entity. Perhaps there was another explanation — maybe the executive order was intended to facilitate international cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Unlikely, my new Republican friends responded. Most likely the executive order was intended to pave the way for a foreign country to sweep into the U.S. and arrest George W. Bush or Dick Cheney for alleged war crimes involving the prisoners at Guantanamo.

Since I was the one who knew nothing about it, I promised to look into the matter. That’s where the real effort and patience came in. The next day I searched the Internet for “Obama and Interpol” and came back with dozens of pages of references, nearly all of them linking to bloggers and most of them citing those four articles. I wasn’t impressed with the articles, and Liz Cheney’s name didn’t inspire me to believe it was a straight-shooting journalistic account. But, truth to tell, there was no better source at the time.

Every few days I trolled the ’Net again. Finally, about a week after New Year’s, I found some honest-to-God reporting. It was a December 31 story in the New York Times, citing the raft of comments on the blogs and the resulting speculation, and it was soon followed by reports from ABC Television (in which the enterprising reporter even reached back to a Bush administration official to counter any liberal bias).

All credible sources came to the same conclusion: But for the Internet-based rumor-mongering, the executive order was not a story. Obama signed it to give Interpol’s five-person New York office diplomatic immunity. The order originated in the Bush years and W. himself might have signed it if he had gotten around to it. What’s more, protected by immunity or not, Interpol has little to gain. That’s because, despite its derring-do image, Interpol in fact has no agents, investigators, or police officers. It’s a bunch of pencil pushers connecting the police of its 188 member countries.

A White House spokeswoman, explaining why the order was signed with no public statement from the president, said simply, “there is nothing newsworthy here.” On that point I would disagree with the Obama people. Given the current political climate, even the most innocuous executive order is newsworthy — as is a dinner with Republicans at which everyone remains civil.

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