Legislation to stop whining gets an earful

A Missouri congressman calls for a complaint-free day before Thanksgiving. Angry respondents feast on the bill.

November 23, 2009|Mcclatchy Newspapers

Washington — Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) wanted people to stop complaining for a day and count their blessings.

What he got was just more complaints.

The lawmaker was on the receiving end last week of an angry torrent of ill will from conservative websites.

It was a reminder -- as if anyone needed it -- that in the era of 24/7 smack-down politics, nothing is out of bounds.

"We're such a polarized nation and we look for things to argue over," Cleaver said. "But to argue over complaining?"

What became instant fodder for the Web, talk radio, podcasts and even the old-fashioned nightly news started innocently enough.

Cleaver offered legislation in June to set aside the day before Thanksgiving as "Complaint-Free Wednesday." He did so at the request of a faith group in the Kansas City, Mo., area that wanted to promote positive attitudes.

The bill encouraged "people to look forward, not backward," Cleaver said in a letter to House colleagues seeking support, a "meaningful and powerful reminder to prepare for a day of gratitude."

Now, this is a Congress that has given us National Ice Cream Month and found time to praise the plumbing industry.

Surely, then, the notion that on Thanksgiving eve, people might stop whining for just a day, take stock and give thanks would not seem to be a threat to the republic.

"I thought dissent and complaining were patriotic," thundered one reader after some conservative websites printed Cleaver's "Dear Colleague" letter.

"I thought DC had gotten as stupid as they could get and I was wrong," groused another.

Cleaver said that some calls to his office from overwrought respondents went something like this: "I want you to show me where in the Bible it says I shouldn't complain. I haven't seen anything where Jesus asked us not to complain."

(Maybe not Jesus, Cleaver said, but Paul came pretty close in Philippians 4:8.)

The three-term congressman is an unlikely candidate to unleash the furies. A Methodist minister for nearly four decades, Cleaver is the founder of the House Civility Caucus and also leads the National Prayer Breakfast.

He said he never expected the legislation to go anywhere, or for people to stop complaining.

"Go ahead. We don't have complaint police," he said. "It was just a way to make a statement."

There have been some supporters. In a request for an interview, an Australian radio station told Cleaver's office, "We think the idea is fantastic and we'd like to champion it in Australia as well."

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) had offered the same legislation last year but with none of the accompanying political fireworks.

The Rev. Will Bowen of the One Community Spiritual Center in Kansas City and the founder of A Complaint Free World, the group behind the idea, said Cleaver had been misunderstood.

"Complaint Free is not about asking people to just shut up and suck up whatever comes their way," he said. "Complaining is pointing out problems, and pointing out problems is easy; looking for solutions takes effort."

No stranger to sermons, Cleaver said the moral of this story was clear: "Next time you ask people to count their blessings, duck."

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