Teddy Kennedy, the famed moral exemplar, read his former senatorial colleague John Ashcroft the riot act during confirmation hearings.

Ashcroft was extreme; his constitutional understanding of gun control was “radical.” The senatorial face grew flush—presumably with anger, since it was a bit early in the day for more potent stuff.

Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware was likewise ticked. Why, this man—this Ashcroft—had given an interview to Southern Partisan, the very existence of which was offensive to “20 million African-Americans.” He was assuming 20 million African-Americans so much as knew the interview existed—a questionable point, to say the least.

And there was Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. She wasn’t going to vote for “someone . . . so far out of the mainstream that it divides the country”—the mainstream as defined, evidently, by Senator Boxer. On to New York Sen. Charles Schumer. Ashcroft was “one of the most outspoken anti-choice crusaders in the country.”

Confirm the guy? You had to wonder, toward the end of the hearings, how Ashcroft’s erstwhile Democratic colleagues had managed all these years not to rend him limb from limb.

Of course, when you’ve watched Washington politics a while, you know what is going on. “Talking for Buncombe” has been a local habit, at least since 1820, when Rep. Felix Walker of North Carolina, during the Missouri Compromise debate, gave birth to the term. Ashcroft’s inquisitors on the Judiciary Committee were talking to their own private Buncombes, hoping to be heard, as no doubt they were.

Their actions further defaced politics—the process by which men in society seek (theoretically, of course) the good. But another point arises: The right side of the street always gets defaced, while the left side normally escapes damage.

Republicans and conservatives hardly ever—maybe never—do to Democrats and liberals what is done routinely to them: eviscerate a president’s nominee—just stand right there and publicly disembowel him, as happened with Ashcroft, Robert Bork, and Clarence Thomas. Bill Clinton’s nominees—from the fiercely “pro-choice” Donna Shalala on down—received dignified treatment. I can think of no instance in which Republicans made mendacious charges resembling those leveled at Ashcroft—even in the case of the really awful and unqualified Jocelyn Elders, whom Clinton ultimately bounced as surgeon general.

You can look at this performance gap in two ways: Republicans are wimps, or Republicans are the lonely defenders of a mostly vanished civility in public life. In modern politics, wimpery and civility are sometimes barely distinguishable. The civil tend toward what resembles wimpery.

Civility involves, much of the time, the biting of tongues. You don’t tell a jerk what a jerk he is, simply because you weren’t brought up to do so. Senator Kennedy is likely the biggest jerk in public life —an immoralist who loves to preach morals; a rich man who exalts his commitment to the poor without divesting himself of his immoral money. Does a gentleman, even so, say the obvious— that Ted should be horsewhipped? No, he doesn’t. This is because one doesn’t want to climb down to that level—a pretty far drop, in all conscience.

However, failing to climb down for a good roll in the gutter exacts a certain cost. You have to hope those watching get the high-minded message: “I’m not going to engage in that sort of thing.” They may get it; they may not—which is more likely in the age of mass democracy, when anyone who can drive a car is pronounced fit to exercise the franchise.

There’s a wonderfully enlightening chapter in William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee—A too-much-neglected work of literature—concerning the downfall of Mississippi’s gentlemanly U.S. Sen. LeRoy Percy (the author’s father) at the hands of the distinctly non-gentlemanly James Vardaman. The voters—and this was 1912—didn’t want a gentleman; they wanted one of their own. And they got him.

What does this prove? That the gentle Percys are ever destined to give way before the no-holds-barred Vardamans? Not really. The Vardamans won long ago. Yet even today, Republicans somehow have a better knack than Democrats at retaining personal dignity, and a better grasp of the reasons why, in the Age of Clinton, dignity is indispensable.

Even when it looks like wimpery, you don’t want this condition to endure. You want a little respect, a little civility. At the same time, you hope Republicans can come to understand the stakes in the ongoing confirmation wars. As soon as the next Supreme Court vacancy comes up. Democrats are going to scream bloody murder about any nominee with the slightest taint of conservative blood—the kind of nominee George Bush says he will propose. We’ll hear of racism. We’ll hear of nefarious places where the nominee has made speeches. You can count on his intention of sending poor women to the alleys for coat-hanger abortions.

Something else can’t be counted on, but it can be hoped. A well-loved Episcopal bishop—a conservative —once put it well. Of his revisionist adversaries, he prayed: “Lord, let them go too far.” Let them show, in other words, what bad guys they are, for all their fine talk. Then let the people judge. Let the truth—whose tones are resonant —be heard loudly, clearly.