Kentucky voices: Call to civic — and civil action

The tragedy in Tucson has unleashed an absurdly hypocritical spectacle: Hyper-partisan pols, cable TV screaming heads and the blogosphere's ideological flamethrowers, all decrying political vitriol.

As a classmate of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in a two-year fellowship program aimed at promoting civility in politics, I'm confident her reaction would be: "Welcome to the (bi-partisan) party!" And as our fellowship reassembles to fulfill Gabby's legacy, we ask you to join us in this critical cause.

In 2005, the Aspen Institute — the venerable Washington monument within the swamp of D.C. partisanship — gathered 16 of us: young elected officials, with a deliberate mix of gender, race, geography and party affiliation. Under the banner of the Rodel Fellowship program — whose mission is to support a "political system based on thoughtful and civil bipartisan dialogue" — we were joined in the hopes of producing a more responsible approach to America's most important domestic issues.

The Aspen nation-builders surmised that if they could identify future leaders early enough and empower us to connect and debate, we'd ultimately view each other not as partisan opponents but as fellow Americans pursuing our own notions of the common good. In turn, the public would benefit from leadership more accountable to it, instead of to the political parties or special interests.

Even within our group of highly touted talents, amid the torrent of ascendant egos and alpha-dog chutzpah, Gabrielle Giffords was the model of soft-spoken confidence. Despite her impressive resume and astronaut boyfriend (now husband), Gabby was often the one who grounded us, a moral center who made us laugh and reminded us of our shared humanity. She was a force for civility within a group assembled for that very purpose.

Over the next few weeks, as in the wake of Oklahoma City and then 9-11, the body politic likely will tone down its rhetoric and wax poetically about a more reflective public dialogue. Reforms will be offered in Gabby's name before we — inevitably — return to our partisan corners, demonizing and crucifying the other side over the next urgent issue. Gabby's Rodel cohorts are taking on the challenge of trying to ensure that this time is different, that this tragic event sparks lasting positive change. Within hours of the shooting, the group that had not met in nearly five years reconnected by phone and e-mail. We decided the timing was ripe for us to regroup and reboot by broadening our mission: to design concrete programs that will promote bipartisan productivity, and punish those who undermine effective governing.

Transitioning from mere talk to engagement will be a considerable challenge, given the polarized and paralyzed status quo. But with five new Rodel classes, we are now 125 fellows strong, representing a broader spectrum of government and a new generation of American leaders who've demonstrated far less allegiance to the rigid partisanship of our elders.

This movement will not — cannot — be limited to elected pols. Gabby was just one of 20 Americans shot that day, all of whom were participating in a local civic event. As someone who has spent the last decade advocating for public policy that reflects a more compassionate community, I've understood we too often underestimate the critical role played by the average citizen. Now as a recovering politician, I'm inspired by my mentor, Al Gore, whose Nobel Peace Prize proves that sometimes you can accomplish more outside of public office, challenging those within.

That's why each of us who believes that a workable democracy depends on civil discourse must take action now:

■ Attend the next political town hall meeting in your community so your sane voice gets more air time than destructive extremism.

■ Communicate with your elected representatives using all of the new technologies of our social media.

■ Demand more civic education in your kids' schools.

■ Join a group that promotes bipartisanship, such as the national citizen movement No Labels (NoLabels.org), which organizes community gatherings to advocate solutions to the obstinate, chronic policy problems that our politics-as-blitzkrieg simply can't fix.

And the time is now. Less than 24 hours before her life would forever change, Gabrielle Giffords e-mailed Kentucky's Secretary of State Trey Grayson, another Rodel classmate, who was recently named director of Harvard's Institute of Politics. Gabby offered her assistance: "We need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down."

As Gabby — and the nation itself — recover from last week's traumatic wounds, it's essential for the rest of us to take up her mission.