President Obama knows how to handle a heckler. During a White House ceremony this week promoting LGBT Pride Month, he dispatched the interruptions of a protester with trademark aplomb. “You’re in my house,” he said with a wag of his finger. “It’s not respectful when you get invited to somebody’s [house]. You’re not going to get a good response from me by interrupting me like this. I’m sorry. I’m sorry . . . Shame on you, you shouldn’t be doing this.”
The press reported on this “scolding” approvingly. NPR noted that the president “shut down” the heckler. CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley called it a “smack down.” Missing from the fawning coverage was a revival of the insinuation that, because of his race, President Obama has been the “most disrespected president in history.” Why? Perhaps because the heckler wasn’t a Republican or a right-wing pundit but an illegal immigrant and transgender activist protesting the detention of LGBTQ migrants slated for deportation. (And let’s pause for a moment to contemplate the nerve of someone in this country illegally showing up at the White House and challenging the president.)
The dreaded “shame on you” rejoinder is typically reserved for Republican senators, Henry Kissinger, and FOX News personalities. Ever since Republican South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson’s infamous “You lie!” outburst at a 2009 Obama speech to a joint session of Congress, the progressive Left has been hung up on the notion of right-wing disrespect. In March, the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart wrote an article called, “Top 6 instances of disrespect toward President Obama.” In addition to Wilson’s transgression, the list included Bill O’Reilly 2014 interview with the president. Capehart objected to O’Reilly’s “seat-of-the-chair lecturing” of Obama. After 47 GOP senators sent a letter to the Iranian president while Obama was in the middle of a nuclear negotiation with the Islamic Republic, Sally Kohn lamented “a troubling pattern of profound disrespect for the President.” The disrespect, she wrote in an article for CNN, came from Obama’s probably racist critics on the right: “Whatever Republicans’ gripes about President Obama’s vision and leadership, the party and its followers are too often expressing their critiques in an ugly way.”
Capehart and Kohn either have short memories or little understanding of history. Slamming the president is an American pastime—and the uglier the better. “God damn your god damned old hellfired god damned soul to hell god damn you and god damn your god damned family’s god,” wrote Peter Muggins in an 1860 letter to the just-elected Abraham Lincoln (the source of Muggins’s displeasure is lost to history). The critic H.L. Mencken was fond of smacking down American presidents and didn’t much care which party they belonged to. “He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered,” Mencken said of Republican Warren G. Harding. “It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights.” That’s disrespect as art.
Unless I’m forgetting, no one on the staffs of NPR, CBS, the Washington Post, or CNN did much handwringing about presidential disrespect during the George W. Bush years. The Left delighted in comparing Bush with a talking monkey on placards and in YouTube videos. When columnist and author Molly Ivins died in 2007, her Associated Press obituary respectfully referred to her as “the sharp-witted liberal who skewered the political establishment and referred to President Bush as ‘Shrub.’” Who can forget the tee shirts and bumper stickers declaring that a “village in Texas is missing its idiot?”
In 2004, congressional Democrats showered Bush with boos at the State of the Union address as he proposed renewing the Patriot Act. They did it again the next year, when he claimed that Social Security would go bankrupt by 2042 without his proposed, and ultimately doomed, reforms. In 2008, 12,000 people signed a petition to rename a San Francisco-area sewage plant after the 43rd president.
Even years after leaving office, Bush remains a target. The popular HBO series Game of Thrones used a prop Bush mask as a severed head on a pike in 2012. The writer and artist Molly Crabapple took a dislike to Bush’s post-presidential hobby. “The greatest work of art George W. Bush ever took part in was in 2008, when an Iraqi journalist threw two shoes at his head,” she wrote in a 2014 review of his oil painting portraits of world leaders. “Bush dodged the shoes with the same ease with which he’d dodged consequences all his life.”
When the Left heckles a Republican president, the media celebrates it as a sign that our rowdy democracy still knows how to speak truth to power. When the Right heckles a Democratic president, the media howls that it’s a troubling sign of disrespect for our venerable institutions. When someone challenges Obama from the left in public, however, the president remains virtuous and the heckler’s motives go unexamined. As the Obama years crawl to a close, the media’s cheerleading grows ever louder. Like dogs barking idiotically through endless nights.