Monday, April 26, 2010

Compare and Contrast

2010. Today John Caruso posted this story at A Distant Ocean. Phil Radford, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, was invited to the White House to meet President Obama.

He walked person to person, saying hello, as advocate after advocate threw him softball questions. I shook the President's hand, and said:

"Mr. President, I am Phil Radford from Greenpeace. We are concerned that your administration is overturning the ban on whaling."

"I know" he replied. "I've seen your ads in the papers."

"Great," I replied. "What is your plan to change your administration's position?

"Look," said the president, sounding like his Saturday Night Live doppelganger, "I love whales. I will do what I can to protect them."

"Will you reverse your administration's position?" I asked.

The President responded "Oh come on, don't lobby me here right now..."

2001. A freelance writer named Bill Hangley told this story.
So when the President was here on July 4, I had the opportunity to shake his hand. I wasn't sure if that was a good idea or not but I did it anyway, and said to him, "Mr President, I hope you only serve four years. I'm very disappointed in your work so far."

He kept smiling and shaking my hand but answered, "who cares what you think?" His face stayed photo-op perfect but his eyes gave me a look that said, if we'd been drinking in some frat house in Texas, he'd've happily answered, "let's take it outside." A nasty little gleam. But he was (fortunately) constrained by presidential propriety.

But that was the end of it, until I turned away and started scribbling the quote down in my notepad, so as to remember The Gift forever. When he saw me do that he got excited and craned his neck over the rubberneckers to shout at me, "who are you with? Who are you with?" People started looking so he made a joke: "make sure you get it right." But he kept at it: "Who do you write for?" I told him I wasn't "with" anybody and pointed to one of his staff people, who knows me a little, and said, "ask him, he'll tell you." Then I split.

Half an hour later, my boss (who had helped organize the event we were at) came up to me and said, "did you really tell the President that he was doing a 'lousy f***ing job'?" No way, I said, I was very polite, I just told him what I thought. Fortunately, he believed me. He wasn't happy with me, but he believed me.
I first read this story in Mark Crispin Miller's The Bush Dyslexicon, but later found it on the site Snopes.com, which researches rumors and urban legends. The Snopeses concluded, reasonably enough, that there's no way to decide whether the story is true or not. But then they decided to editorialize:
Our opinion? There are plenty of traditional outlets for expressing dissatisfaction with the policies and actions of elected representatives, but walking up to the President at a public function and telling him he's doing a lousy job isn't one of them. Such behavior demonstrates a lack of respect for the office of President of the United States, an honor that should be maintained whether or not one respects the man who currently holds the office — just as the well-mannered citizen doesn't express his disagreement with the political views of a American-flag-carrying protester by spitting on the flag he bears, because that act displays a contempt for everything Old Glory symbolizes, not merely for the person carrying it. The President isn't above criticism, but freedom of speech isn't an excuse for ignoring the ordinary civilities of choosing an appropriate time, place, and manner for the expression of that criticism.
This reminds me of that scene in Woody Allen's Love and Death, where Allen's character marries Diane Keaton's character after a long determined pursuit. In their marriage bed he puts his hand on his bride's breast, and she says, "Please -- not here." After years of dealing with people in various corners of the Internet who protest that discussion forums designed and intended for just that purpose aren't the right place to debate politics, religion, or anything else, I am still boggled by the Snopeses' attitude. If Radford could call up the President for a few hours of golf and talk to him man to man on the links, reminding him of campaign contributions received and (hopefully, if he flies right) campaign contributions to come, I'm sure he would. But mere mortals don't usually have the options reserved for the great.

I suppose there are "plenty of traditional outlets for expressing dissatisfaction with the policies and actions of elected representatives," but (especially where the President is concerned) most of them seem to be designed to ensure that those representatives never hear the dissatisfaction expressed. I have a better chance that my criticisms will reach the ear of my Congressman, though, than that of the President. Most citizens are never going to meet the President face to face, and it seems to me that anyone who has that opportunity should use it responsibly. Expressing one's dissatisfaction with the actions and policies of my elected representatives, politely and rationally, seems to me the prerogative of a citizen of a nominally free and democratic country. If Hangley said to Bush what he says he said (and I see no reason to doubt it), I don't think he behaved inappropriately at all. (Dick Cheney's notorious "Go fuck yourself" to a member of Congress took place long after Hangley's encounter with Bush, by the way. Hangley behaved much better -- with more "propriety", if you like -- than our elected representatives.)

From the way the Snopeses express their disapproval, I suspect they believe that Hangley did cuss at Bush: they compare his remarks to "spitting on the flag". Or maybe not; they seem to think that just mildly telling the President that you don't like his performance is
lèse-majesté. (Which is evidently still a crime in some countries, but we don't have a king here, remember? In fact we fought a revolution to get rid of ours.) This is hysteria. I'm not a flag idolater either, and "everything Old Glory symbolizes" includes some history that should be spit on as far as I'm concerned, like slavery and the genocide of the Indians. The President of the United States is not a king; the office (let alone the person) of the President is not sacred. Perhaps the Snopeses would be happier living in England or another monarchical (monarchized?) country.

I'm sure that both Bush and Obama would agree with the Snopeses, of course. From the look on Bush's face when Stephen Colbert roasted him at the National Press Club in 2006, to the look on Obama's face when gay protesters heckled him recently, our elected representatives need to be confronted more. (And do I need to point out that Hangley, Colbert, and the GetEQUAL protesters still behaved better than our current right-wing dissenters?) Two American political cliches come to mind: If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen; and The buck stops here.