''WHAT IF?" is one of America's great questions. It's led to so many beautiful events in our history: the walk on the moon, the first organ transplant, the flight of the first hydrogen-powered plane.
So what if we changed the tone in Washington? What if we did it for real?
To start, what if Democratic and Republican speechwriters went on strike -- no more cheap partisan rhetoric? What if we stopped typing the language of division and vowed never to write another personal attack again?
There is a difference between writing and typing for speechwriters: writing involves thought and typing does not. That is why our leaders on both sides have used such offensive lines like ''liars," ''Nazis," ''Liberals saw. . . 9/11 and wanted to offer. . .therapy," anything that comes out of Rick Santorum's mouth, and ''(Republicans) want to kill us."
For most writers, it's not in our nature to want to go to that personal attack. Most of us actually believe that a speech, a line, or an idea can transform humankind. That's what true compassionate conservatives believe. That's what progressives hold dear. We believe that honest debates are the eternal pull of America.
But these typed and empty lines are meant to tear people down, not lift up our nation. I call these kinds of lines, ''hooker lines." They're a sure thing to get the red meat crowd clapping and a sure thing to get the press typing.
Yes, I am to blame as a Democratic speechwriter who has typed a few hooker lines. I apologize to every person who has to wear earplugs because the rhetoric has gotten so bad. And I suppose that if speechwriters stopped typing these lines, then someone else would step in.
But what if we stopped? What if we got back to writing? What if our leaders sounded like leaders again?
Here's what I mean. The president's Inaugural Address was all about writing. With the exception of a few too many ''He's," it was one of the best speeches in recent memory. This is writing. ''We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul."
This is typing from Republican Representative John Hostettler from Indiana, ''Like a moth to a flame, Democrats can't help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians."
And to show that I am a good partisan, here's some lovely writing from a Democrat. Senator Barack Obama gave a very moving sermon on Father's Day. He said, ''One of the things that I learned about being a man is that you're not strong by putting other people down, you're strong by lifting them up."
And here is some off the cuff typing from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, ''I think this guy is a loser."
The detractors will say that politics has always been nasty. So what. Why not try? They'll say that speechwriters are idealists. Actually, we're more optimists disguised as cynics. And they'll say that political debates without personal attacks would be boring. Forgive me, but when nearly 1,800 American men and women have died, more than 10,000 wounded in the war in Iraq; when terrorist bombs kill innocent people in London, and when 30,000 children die every day from preventable causes, entertainment (and I'm not talking about ''The Daily Show") is a concern for idiots.
America is divided because, for the most part, too many of our leaders are headed down the low road paved in the politics of division. They're so focused on speaking like a Republican or a Democrat, they've forgotten how to talk like an American. The low road is one big traffic jam, but the high road is open. Someone who takes that road, focuses on what's possible, and describes a new destiny for America will unite this country.
Maybe what I am hoping for just isn't possible anymore. I long for that leader who can stand at the plate like Babe Ruth did, point to that center field, and say, ''You see that great place. That's possible. So let's go."
I know we can do better. If we can talk about the problems that pull this country apart, then we can talk about the ideas and possibilities that will pull us together. We do this by never being lulled into the ease of partisan division. We do this by moving forward because we have a mountain to climb. Not because of where we've been or where we are, but because of where we want America to go.
It's a great place -- this place we dream of. To get there, we must say enough to cheap rhetoric. This speechwriter is on strike, no more lines. Any Republican speechwriters care to join? Anyone want to start climbing in a way that fights the good fight with wit and wisdom and makes Americans want to listen, not shove cotton in their ears?
There is a way to change the tone in Washington, by listening to America's everlasting song, ''What if?"
Wendy Button has written for Democratic Senators John Edwards, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and John Kerry, and for Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.