Exchanges on the House floor were growing heated and vicious. Cooperation between parties had ground to a halt – and had already led to a shutdown of government. Worried about the future of Congress itself, 86 members sent a letter to the speaker requesting an urgent, bipartisan retreat to focus on one thing: building civility.

Laura Chasin, founder of the Public Conversations Project, helped facilitate discussions at that 1997 congressional retreat in Hershey, Pa., and describes a “very moving” scene. Members were asked how the acrimony in public life affected them. “And the stories that came out,” she says, “oh, my.” One congressman from the Southwest, “with tears streaming down his face,” Ms. Chasin recalls, said he’d gotten into politics to help people, but found himself in town-hall meetings “just gritting his teeth. The abuse had become so horrible.”

Now, 15 years later, it seems the tone in Washington – and around the country – is, if possible, even more divisive and ugly. Last summer, with a stagnant economy and emotions over the health-care reform bill raging, some members wound up canceling town-hall meetings altogether because they were deteriorating into shouting matches.

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