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File -- Etiquette expert Letitia Baldridge (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/Dallas Morning News)

Thanks to the election, Superstorm Sandy and the Giants' spectacular win in the World Series, many otherwise notable news stories have slipped through the cracks in the past few weeks.

While those events deserved the headlines they got, I suspect that under normal circumstances, it would have been bigger news that Letitia Baldrige, one of the original etiquette czarinas, had died.

She's not a household name to my daughters' generation, but many of us remember how the daughter of a Republican congressman famously served as Jackie Kennedy's social secretary and went on to become an arbiter of manners, writing a newspaper column and more than 20 books.

My mother would laugh to hear me lament the passing of the "doyenne of decorum." When I was a child, she did manage to teach me which side the fork went on when setting a table, but she had a hard time convincing me mashed potatoes weren't a finger food.

But I've come to realize that advice columns aren't always what they seem. Writers like Baldrige and Miss Manners aren't out to set us straight on trivial matters, like where the dessert spoon should reside in relationship to the coffee cup. Like other advice columnists, they graciously explain to readers that most any situation can be figured out by some variation of the Golden Rule.

While such columns can be easily dismissed, I find myself drawn to them; the questions are snapshots of the human condition, the answers usually insightful riffs on our changing times. And from the remarkable confusion seen in some of those letters, the columns often serve to remind us of the value of a little kindness -- not a bad thing. So it was ironic that Baldrige died Oct. 29 -- the very day Sandy was making life miserable all across the northern East Coast and on the long, exhausting eve of the most contentious presidential election any of us can remember.

I only learned about her death a week later while reading The New York Times' City Room blog. On it, Clyde Haberman pondered the sorts of questions of propriety a disaster might raise. He recalled asking Baldrige if the Titanic were sinking today, would the lifeboat protocol still be "women and children first"?

Her response reflected that social graces evolve, or so one would hope, as times change. In Haberman's words:

"Children always must be saved first," Ms. Baldrige said firmly. But women? Not so fast. At 6 feet, 1 inch tall, she expected no special consideration. "Whoever is strong and healthy can help the ones who aren't," she said.

That's as good and succinct a common-sense answer as I can think of. It's also timely, because the mean-spiritedness that's permeated the airwaves and Internet over the past few months flies in the face of every etiquette rule I can think of. That was clear last weekend as I toggled between news of Sandy's aftermath and the pending election.

Watching news clips from Ohio and New Jersey from my perch in the warm California sunshine, the contrast was striking. Sure, there was some post-Sandy ugliness here and there, mostly borne out of genuine hunger, cold and fear. Yet the storm coverage reminded me what I love most about America: In times of crisis, we come together -- whether it's housing a stranded stranger, bringing food to a shelter or writing a check to the Red Cross.

Still, while there's nothing like a hurricane or a terrorist attack to bring out the best in Americans, there's nothing like an election to bring out the worst. While this year's is over, the rancor continues.

I get it. This year's presidential election presented two very different paths to the future. I still choose to believe the reason most of us got so hot and bothered by it was not because we enjoy being angry at people with whom we vehemently disagree -- though some obviously find it a blood sport -- but because we love our country so much. We see our future in sincerely different ways. But will scratching each other's eyes out on cable TV or ranting on Facebook convince people who think differently that they're wrong and we're right?

So I find myself asking, what would Letitia Baldrige say?

I suspect she'd say something along these lines: We're all grown-ups here. Whoever is strong and healthy can help the ones who aren't. Put down your knives and pick up your forks. There's work to be done.

Lisa Wrenn is the Bay Area News Group's Features Editor. Contact her at lwrenn@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/lwrenn.