COLUMN: White House heckling incident highlights a fundamental problem
Initially, I thought the hullabaloo over Neil Munro’s interruption of President Barack Obama’s remarks June 15 at the White House Rose Garden was overdone.
But I have come to a different conclusion after reading all the commentary about the incident — as well as the typical rationalizations from those defending Munro, a correspondent for DailyCaller.com, a politically right-leaning blog.
WHY DID IT HAPPEN?
This incident and the reactions to it are indications of a narrative deeper and uglier than just a lapse in judgment or manners or even disagreement over public policy. This incident reveals a lot about the divide in our culture.
I'm not talking about race relations. I don't think it has anything to do with race. I don't think the incident is a symptom of some recently developed lack of respect for the office of president or trend in civility or the lack thereof, either. There really isn’t anything exactly new about incivility embedded in this story.
I mean, come on, let’s put things in perspective: We are talking about a nation that was founded on revolution, enabled by human slavery and the dissolution and robbery of Native American communities. The United States has had a bitter civil war, riots, killings over civil rights and a never-ending stream of invective, hyperbole and political posturing.
Four presidents have been assassinated, and there have been at least 20 other known attempts. There have been several other political figures — such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy — who were either killed or had someone actively trying to take them out.
All things considered, someone vociferously yelling questions at the president while he is still speaking, although rude, is not really shocking evidence of a “new” era of incivility. However, it is not without meaning, either.
LACK OF PROFESSIONALISM
My placing the incident between Munro and Obama in historical context does not mean I think the press should not say anything about it or that it should be acceptable.
I certainly do not think Munro's actions are praiseworthy, as apparently a large number of right-win bloggers, Republican political operatives and citizens who do not like the president do. And to be fair, several of the president’s detractors or opponents also denounced Munro’s actions.
I am not a professional journalist, but I am a student who is hoping to one day be a professional journalist. I am, however, an adult who has been out in the world as a professional for many years before returning to school. Because of this, I understand codes of decorum and something known as professional behavior.
I have seen, heard or read about every conceivable rationalization about this incident between Munro and Obama, as well as other incidents between the press and presidents. Many of them are well-worn clichés.
For instance, a famous quote from former GOP senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater has been marshaled to defend Munro.
“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” Goldwater said.
I also have heard people people say, "We respect the office of president and the U.S. Constitution more than Obama does.”
I am sorry, but I just don’t get the sense that people saying such things understand what respect, self-respect or professional etiquette means. Please note that I don't have a problem with dissent. Without dissent, the world would definitely be a worse place to live and there wouldn't be any United Sates to begin with.
Dissent has its place, but let me give you an example of how I, myself, have adhered to standards of etiquette regarding public officials — even when I did not want to.
STANDARDS OF RESPECT
I, perhaps like many millions of people, thought that George W. Bush was a terrible leader. I thought that when he was the governor of Texas when I was living and working in Texas as an audio-visual technician.
I attended a number of events at which I had to be near to and assist Bush with microphones. At the time, I was very angry with him over several policy matters and his entire ideology. I thought that if he were to become president, it would be catastrophic to the whole world (I don’t think I was far off, at all).
Yet there I was, not only in the same room with him on several occasions, but performing a service for him. I shook his hand. I helped put lapel microphones on him. I have even seen him drunk on two occasions — once in his home and once at a Christmas party — between 1996 and 1999. This, by the way, contradicts when Bush said during the 2000 presidential campaign that he quit drinking in 1986 and hadn't had a drop since.
In spite of the fact that I did not really like or respect the man personally, I did respect his office. I would never have dreamed of yelling at and interrupting him in the same way Munro interrupted Obama.
What Munro did was not only rude and unprofessional but counterproductive to those with whom he is politically aligned. It should have been an embarrassment to conservatives, his employer and himself.
I have only been on staff with The Daily since January, but I can tell you this: If I acted like Munro did toward Norman Mayor Cindy Rosenthal or OU President David Boren, I would fully expect to be dismissed — and to have a hard time getting a job with any other reputable media outlet.
There’s the rub. DailyCaller.com and many other political blogs don't have those kinds of standards. They make names for themselves by stirring the pot so they can generate hits on their websites.
We have yet to see where such trends are steering us, but I sure don't like where it appears we are going.
I probably would have just shook my head over this incident and not said a word until I started seeing how people were defending Munro and rationalizing about the incident.
WHAT BOTHERED ME
First, Munro is not actually a U.S. citizen. He's an Irishman working in the U.S. with a green card.
The very first thing I thought of when I learned this was how much of the right went bananas when a member of a certain female band “criticized the president on foreign soil."
The Dixie Chicks were accused of everything from treason to being terrorist appeasers. Their music was banned from radio stations across the country, and people set fire to their records in staged events.
Yet, when Munro — a foreigner — disrespects Obama at the White House, not only do we not see that kind of righteous anger from many of the same people who wanted to hang the Dixie Chicks out to dry, but we see them defending Munro. Furthermore, few of them seem to comprehend how someone might see the slightest bit of irony in this.
The second thing that really got under my skin was listening to Munro explaining the rationale behind his actions on the Sean Hannity show.
He essentially said Obama is apt to not answer questions and simply conclude his remarks and walk away, so he wanted to slip in a question before the president finished speaking. The only problem with Munro's logic is that Obama was in the middle of a sentence when he fired off his question. Munro repeated this again a little later.
I believe Munro about as much as I believe that DailyCaller.com is a reputable and reliable source of news or political analysis.
NOT RACIAL, BUT POLITICAL
One of the things we covered in a linguistics class I had last semester was the definition of a true interruption. A true interruption was defined as an attempt by one person to usurp the established turn at speaking of another person. As I see it, that's what Munro did. He infringed upon the president's established turn and right to speak.
Some people are playing the race card, but I think this incident is more of a symptom of the right-wing attitude.
Conservatives think Democrats are unworthy to hold office. It simply doesn't matter if the person was elected by a majority of Americans. To Republicans, if a person doesn't share their political views, he or she is unworthy of respect.
Democrats, you see, are the enemy — not fellow Americans with variant opinions. I remember many of my conservative friends spouting off on Facebook and sharing emails that echoed this idea immediately after Obama was elected.
"America has made a huge mistake!" and "Obama is already a failure!" statements quickly spread before he was even inaugurated. And, of course, there were the calls to "take America back," which insinuated that somehow America had been lost because a Democrat was going to be president.
Because of attitudes like this, some of which are undoubtedly mirrored by segments of the left-leaning side of the population, our nation is as badly divided and filled with acrimony as it has been in a very long time.
Although I don’t think Munro’s outburst is evidence of recently increased incivility, the country is every bit as divided as it was during the 1960s or 1970s during the height of the Civil Rights revolution and the Vietnam War.
Bipartisanship has all but vanished. It seems we are now locked into never-ending, around-the-clock campaign season in which holding the balance of power takes priority over leading the country.
Sometimes it seems America is on the verge of a second Civil War. I fear that sometimes all it will take is a spark. I just don’t understand how anyone expects our country to survive under these conditions.
The present dynamic is simply not sustainable.
With any luck, it will be those of us trying to educate ourselves who will assume leadership roles in the world.
It’s really important that we pursue education and find ways to close the divide. Doing so is not surrendering, capitulating or appeasing — it’s how things get done.
Governing is about compromise and if you can’t compromise then you can’t govern.
We are lucky here at OU. Boren — as a former governor and U.S. senator — is a tremendous resource for learning how to bridge the kinds of divides the United States is suffering from right now. If you haven’t read his book “A Letter to America,” I highly recommend it. It is a short but powerful read.
We sorely need to develop more voices that can carry a message like Boren's. Our future depends on it.
Scott Starr is a Native American Studies senior.