MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — The tributes to Gerald Ford’s great achievement in bringing a divided and disappointed country together seem oddly appropriate at the end of a tumultuous political year in which an Era of Angry Feelings led to a major shift of power in Washington.

It is said there is now a new longing for the civility and warmth that Ford represented. There is a certain truth to this, but having reviewed thousands of e-mails sent my way this year by readers, it’s also clear that many Americans are deeply invested in political battles that they see as too important to admit easy compromise.

True, citizens who e-mail columnists are more engaged in public life and care so passionately that they invest time to offer their views — often in learned detail.

I love these folks and thank them. I appreciate their commitment, which is why, once a year, I like to thank not only those who wrote generously and warmly, but also the many dissenters represented succinctly by the reader who simply called me an “idiot.”

Many critics offered useful challenges. “Perhaps, Mr. Dionne, you would also support the right of conservatives to appear without harassment, verbal and physical, at our nation’s leading so-called institutions of higher learning controlled by your … fellow leftists.” I do: It is wrong — and illiberal — to block those with whom you disagree from university platforms.

In response to a column on evangelical pastor Rick Warren, a reader from Portage, Wis., wrote: “Evangelical churches I have been associated with have been reaching out to people throughout the world since before you were born. Missionaries don’t just run around in funny clothes and wave their Bible in the air. They teach basic health and sanitation, provide basic medical care. … The very idea that evangelicals have been negligent in these areas is simply liberal prejudice.”

Judging from my mail, many liberals and Democrats who once liked Sen. John McCain have been pushed away by his opening to the right over the last year or so — but conservatives are responding positively. “McCain is soon to be Maverick non grata” — nice line — “amongst the circles of smug, rich white liberals that you run in,” one reader wrote. “But don’t worry. We’ll support him if he becomes our nominee.”

Many conservatives are frustrated with the Bush administration and the outgoing Republican Congress. Their views were captured by one reader who offered: “Conservatism, like Christianity, has not failed. Neither has ever been tried, especially by this administration.”

A columnist’s e-mail trove is not a scientific sample that would pass the muster of social science. But it does offer clues as to where the politically active invest their energies. Judging by how many people offered their views on nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, the conventional wisdom is entirely right in seeing this as a blockbuster issue.

When I wrote critically of Samuel Alito’s evasiveness during his Senate confirmation hearing to become an associate justice, the floodgates opened. One reader after another suggested that Alito had been no more evasive than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during her hearings in the 1990s. “Gosh, E.J.,” a friendly critic from South Carolina offered, “how many times do you have to be reminded? We won, you lost. I didn’t hear you moaning over Ginsburg’s evasions or whining about how (Stephen) Breyer would move the court to the left. Turnabout is fair play. Relax, maybe your gang will get back in one day.” Indeed.

Also striking was how angry liberals were at the performance of Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee. One reader, representing many others, complained that “all they did was read from redundant and sterile scripts and badger him with the same questions ad nauseam. They have become like the ‘pods’ in ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’ “

And thanks to the reader who wrote: “I would like to congratulate you for identifying yourself as a liberal. Many in your crowd are running from that word these days.” It’s a sign of weakness to embrace only poll-tested and focus-grouped labels.

Finally, a great many readers were frustrated that I have been rather consistently critical of President Bush — though a few wanted more criticism. So please permit me to end the year in the conciliatory spirit of Gerald Ford.

Speaking on Wednesday morning, Bush declared that Ford “came along when we needed him most” and that Americans came to know him “as a man of complete integrity who led our country with common sense and kind instincts.”

President Bush is entirely right.

E.J. Dionne Jr.’s e-mail address is [email protected].

(c) 2006 Washington Post Writers Group

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