Disrespecting the Office to Spite the Holder
The President and former Governor Mitt Romney put on the most entertaining presidential debate in recent memory last night, directly engaging each other on multiple occasions. The substance of plans and policies remained secondary to jostling to control the narrative, but the night gave us the rare spectacle of the de facto heads of the two dominant parties verbally jousting. There was much to be learned from the festivities, but the biggest concern for the modern man might be the referendum on the state of political affairs in America. Have we lost respect for the Office of the President?
Following the first debate, Mitt Romney seized the narrative in this election. His easy delivery and engaging personal style was cast in such stark contrast to the rigid, detached appearance of the President it was jarring. Romney successfully cast doubt on the President’s ability to rise to the lofty expectations of his office. The town hall format of last night’s debate was supposed to be the President’s poison. His oratory, reminiscent of collegiate lectures, is perfectly suited for grand speeches to a captive audience. The theatrical style is ill-suited to the engaged atmosphere and conversational nature of the town hall format. Doubts were cast across most media platforms as people wondered if this would be a figurative Waterloo for the President’s hope for a second term.
The President was certainly up to the challenge Tuesday night. He took the debate directly at the former Governor, repeatedly challenging him with “that’s not true, Governor” and noting virtually every instance Romney stated a position he previously countered. While his penchant for speech-making riddled his segments with pauses that felt more awkward than dramatic, the words cut through Romney’s well-practiced campaign rhetoric. By the end, former Governor Romney was flustered and flailing for support from moderator Candy Crowley (who performed admirably, keeping a measure of control while allowing the participants to engage directly). Worse, his attacks on the President’s record turned into attacks on the President himself, going so far to call into question his character during an uneven exchange on Libya and the regrettable assassination of Ambassador J. Christopher Stephens.
The heated moment produced the debate’s most definitive moment. The President, his ire fully raised, unleashed his most presidential voice.
“The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we are going to to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime. And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with their families. And the suggestion that anyone on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president. That’s not what I do as commander-in-chief.”
Race is no doubt a major concern for the President in the way he has managed public displays of anger. Regrettably, there is a stigma with race our society is still wrestling with. The image of an Angry Black Man in the national imagination is pure bigotry, but it is very real. The President brought himself to that precipice Tuesday night, but demonstrated enough polite restraint to avoid any apparent backlash.
If this was the moment the President came to life, it was long overdue. Early in the debate, Mitt Romney captured, in one stunning moment, the political realities of 2012. Sparing over domestic oil and coal, Romney was in full force attacking the President’s record as the President began to interject. In that moment, Mitt Romney seemingly channeled the entire spirit of the Tea Party movement. He gave, on a world stage, a summation of the vitriolic rhetoric of extreme conservative radio fodder. In precious few words he essentially validated the gripes of every dissatisfied Republican who cannot control their visceral disdain for Barack Obama.
“You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking.”
The unrepentant dismissiveness of the comment is stunning in its context. Mitt Romney, addressing the recognized leader of the free world, dropped all pretense of decorum and effectively told the President to shut up and wait his turn. It’s amazing we did not see an angry President Obama emerge until much later in the debate.
Throughout the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, public discussion of the President demonstrated the appropriate air of respect for the office. Some may have had serious issues with the men holding the title, but they had the dignity to put up a public display of respect worthy of that title. Beginning with the very public trying of President Clinton’s personal dalliances, a slow decay has eroded that respect. As a Republican congress held impeachment hearings, a theatrical display to cause more embarrassment to the President than any real consequence, a general acceptance of public condemnation of the Office of the President crept into national discourse.
By the time President George W. Bush was caught in the storm of phantom weapons of mass destruction, there was seemingly no limit to the way media and entertainment shows could lampoon our country’s leader. In the end, President Bush was as much the caricature Will Farrell created of him as he was the President.
As it became commonplace for commentators to push these boundaries, politicians largely held to the customary respect of the title. The Tea Party movement changed that, severely. As a wave of disenchanted, angry office seekers built campaigns by bashing the President first, his liberal policies second, we saw the line of respect quickly disappear. In 2009 we heard the regrettable outburst of ‘You Lie!’ during the State of the Union address. Tuesday night’s display was inevitable.
Upstaging the President demeans the nobility of the office. That Mitt Romney would discredit the title he seeks shows just how much he must believe Barack Obama is not a man worthy of his respect. Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, you cannot separate the man and the office on this stage. To dismiss the President of the United States with ‘I’m still speaking’ is to elevate yourself above the office. Mr. Romney validated the concerns many have raised that he holds CEOs and capital investors above the officers of the government.
A society that does not respect its leadership is in trouble. Disagreeing with the ideology of the President is the hallmark of a healthy Democracy. Dismissing him as you would an employee, child, or some insignificant annoyance; that is a crisis of character. We need to reestablish dignity as inherent to the Office of the President. We need to do this right now.