By George E. Curry
Like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, President Obama does not get any respect. In fact, no modern United States commander-in-chief has been disrespected more than the nation’s first African American president. The most recent example was House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to deny the president’s request to address a joint session of Congress on Sept. 7. It so happens that one of 20 Republican debates was scheduled that evening, prompting Boehner to suggest moving the address to the next night.
According to Betty K. Koed, associate historian of the Senate, “The Senate Historical Office knows of no instance in which Congress refused the president permission to speak before a joint session of Congress.” Boehner aides defend him by saying the speaker didn’t technically refuse the president permission to speak, he just offered the date.
According to the dictionary, however, that’s exactly what Boehner did.
Merriam-Webster defines refuse this way: “to express oneself as unwilling to accept <refuse a gift> <refuse a promotion>.” Dictionary.com lists this among five definitions: “to decline to give; deny (a request, demand, etc.)” Hair-splitting definitions aside, there is no denying that President Obama has been disrespected from coast to coast.
Marilyn Davenport, a member of the Orange County Republican Party in California, e-mailed a cartoon last April with the face of President Obama superimposed on a chimpanzee. He was accompanied by two older chimpanzee “parents.” The inscription on the cartoon: “Now you know why – No birth certificate.”
The New York Post was roundly criticized for publishing a controversial cartoon in the wake of Connecticut police shooting a pet chimpanzee that had viciously attacked its owner’s friend. The cartoon features two cops – one with a gun in his hand still smoking – standing over a dead ape. The caption read, “They’ll Have to Find Someone Else to Write the Next Stimulus Bill.”
Al Sharpton observed, “Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Obama…and has become synonymous with him, it is not a reach to wonder: are they inferring that a monkey wrote the last bill?” The racist stereotypes were not limited to animals. Dan Grose, the appropriately named former mayor of Los Alamitos, Calif., sent out an e-mail shortly after Obama was inaugurated as president in 2009 under the headline, “No Easter Egg Hunt This Year.” There was an image of the White House lawn covered with watermelons.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tried to dismiss Obama as “the food stamp president” and said Obama “knows how to get the whole country to resemble Detroit.”
Oklahoma Senator Tom Colburn, a Republican, said to have a good relationship with the administration, exploited welfare when discussing Obama. He said of the president, “his intent is to create dependency because it worked so well for him as an African American male.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tells everyone who will listen that his primary goal is defeating President Obama in 2012.
Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, interrupted a presidential address on health care to Congress in 2009 by shouting, “You, lie!”
In many instances, the president is not accorded routine courtesy. At the height of the deficit-ceiling standoff, President Obama telephoned Boehner, only not to have his call promptly returned.
“The president of the United States calls the Speaker of the House, in the midst of an economic crisis, and the speaker won’t pick up the phone? You don’t refuse a call from the president. No matter how deplorable you find his policies,” wrote Michael Kinsley, a member of the editorial board at Bloomberg News. “Everyone knows that, by the rules of telephone tag, it would be Boehner’s obligation to make the next call even if it wasn’t the president of the United States who was trying to reach him.”
After making the first call at night, Obama placed a second call the next day to Boehner, only to be told that Boehner would call him back at 5:30 p.m. And why was Boehner so busy that he didn’t have time to return President Obama’s call? Part of that time was spent “chatting with reporters in the Capitol, joking with one guy about his tan and puffing on a cigarette,” according to the Washington Post.
The disrespect has extended to First Lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters – targets normally considered offlimits in partisan political discourse. Both Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck mocked Malia Obama on air. Beck did so a couple of days after stating a politician’s family should not be criticized in the public arena.
Michelle Obama is often portrayed as an angry Black woman. Bill O’Reilly said she looks “like an angry woman” and Sean Hannity said that she “sounds angry.”
Some of the fireworks have been generated on the left as well. Former President Bill Clinton has violated the custom of former presidents of not criticizing or offering advice to their successors. And the supposedly liberal New Yorker ran a cover image, said to be a joke, of President Obama dressed in Muslim garb, with an American flag burning in the fireplace of the Oval Office and a photo of Osama bin Laden adorning the wall. Michelle Obama, wearing an Afro and pictured with a rifle strapped to her shoulder, is giving her husband a fist bump.
Except for standing up more forcefully to his Republican critics, there is not much Obama can do about the disrespect. But there is plenty we can do – kick the bums out.
George E. Curry, former editor- in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.