There it was again just last week. We were subjected to fresh new evidence of the lack of civility-and even worse-when it comes to the public discourse and behavior regarding this particular president of the United States.
This time, it came from a respected journalist, Mark Halperin, a senior political analyst for Time magazine and MSNBC. Commenting on that news network about President Barack Obama’s performance at a press conference the day before, Halperin used a vulgarism describing the president, a remark that ultimately led to his suspension by MSNBC.
Halperin later explained that he was told by the show’s host Joe Scarborough that there would be a seven-second delay and that any questionable comments could be deleted. However, his description of Obama was not edited out of the show. In the end, Halperin apologized and the network swiftly suspended him, launching a journalistic debate about whether the sentence was too harsh for the crime. To be honest, if that standard were applied across the board, there would hardly be a single commentator left on Fox News.
It is clear that when it comes to the presidency of Obama, there is a tendency toward an unprecedented level of disrespect, contempt and just plain bad behavior that is breathtaking and outrageous. It was prominently in evidence just two years ago, when U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson shocked the country by shouting at the president during a State of the Union speech.
When Obama stated in his address that his health care proposal would not offer free coverage to illegal immigrants, the Republican congressman from South Carolina shouted, “You lie!” before a joint session of Congress and the worldwide television audience.
Earlier this year, Obama agreed to be interviewed on Fox News by Bill O’Reilly on the evening before the Super Bowl. It was a model of journalistic incivility, with O’Reilly interrupting the president’s responses more than 40 times. (Why Obama agreed to this interview is beyond me, given the fact that hatred toward Obama is part of the DNA of Fox News.)
It was certainly one of the hallmarks of the “birther” issue, which had supposedly responsible politicians effectively calling the president of the United States a fraud and a charlatan. Can we ever forget the rantings of Donald Trump-and the Republicans who flocked to and encouraged him in his bold denunciations of the president’s legitimacy?
Around the same time, there was the case of Marilyn Davenport, a Republican Party official in Orange County, Calif., who sent out an email with a caricature that placed the president’s face on the body of a baby chimpanzee. It carried the tag line: “Now you know why no birth certificate.” After feeling the pressure from the NAACP and, later, the national media spotlight, Davenport apologized.
And on Monday, July 4-the day we set aside to celebrate the country’s independence and reflect on what it means to be an American-hackers briefly gained control of Fox News’ Twitter account to wrongly proclaim that Obama had been assassinated in Iowa, “shot twice in the lower pelvic area and in the neck” (think about it!).
Why are we seeing so much disrespectful behavior toward the president? For one thing, it reflects a dissolving level of civility in American culture in general. Emotions have always run high with regard to politics and the presidency, but the very idea of a member of the House of Representatives shouting an insult at a president of the United States before a joint session of Congress would have been unthinkable in an earlier age.
There is another explanation, and it centers on the one area where Obama firmly and indisputably stands apart from his 43 predecessors in the White House. It is the undeniable role of race in this sad state of affairs. Of course, this is no news flash for African-Americans-and it should not be one for discerning Americans of every hue.
It is true that Obama won the election of 2008 and that he was supported by voters of every demographic group. However, many of those who didn’t support him then-and don’t support him now-are an energized, highly emotional faction. And many of those voices have been shrill and far from courteous, often tinged with racial animosity.
Perhaps the sheer flagrance of the effect of those emotions will cause even more Americans to remember that people can disagree without impertinence, without rude and vulgar behavior. It’s a critical lesson for the country to take to heart, especially as we head into an emotional election season.