'Shame on you, you shouldn't be doing this," President Obama said to a heckler who interrupted him Wednesday in the midst of remarks he was making in his own house, a residence that belongs to all Americans. It was the latest of many slights endured by a man deserving of more veneration than he has received.
The exchange reminded me of a question I was asked last week while speaking to a business group in North Carolina. My standard "stump speech" often concerns political polarization. I talk about how we got here and what it will take to reverse the trends. I share data about the exodus of moderates from Washington in the last three decades and contrast their absence from the nation's capital with data showing that a plurality of Americans desires more common ground. "Passion rules," I argue, while blaming incivility and gridlock in Washington on those who have ceded public debate to the loudest voices.
As the one delivering the speech, I find the only surprises come from the Q&A. In the last year or so, I've spoken to disparate groups in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida, Missouri, California, and now the Tar Heel State (though to a trade group of North and South Carolinians). I like hearing what matters most to them, especially with a presidential race unfolding.
Last week, the first question I received concerned term limits. (I said that I'd love to see them but that they would never happen so long as those whose terms we want to limit will have to vote for the change.)
A fellow then asked me how a new constitutional convention might impact the problems I'd identified. (I worry that the loudest voices would control that process, too.)
Another asked about Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), whom I happened to have just interviewed. (I applaud his candor but think his desire to increase our fight against ISIS is at odds with where Americans are, according to the polls.)
With time for one more question, I called on an African American gentleman whose hand I saw in the corner of the large conference ballroom. He wanted to know how I thought Obama had been treated while in office.
I quickly took stock of the room. The crowd numbered roughly 400. They were professionals. Mostly white. Largely male. Older. And all Southern. They had been very attentive to my condemnation of extremists at both ends of our political spectrum. And courteous - laughing in the intended spots, while willing to engage when invited. But I figured that to answer the question honestly was to risk losing half the room. Still, I told him what I thought.
I began by saying that I believe much of the criticism leveled at President George W. Bush in his second term was beyond the pale of decency, which I had noted at the time. The decision to enter Iraq was, in retrospect, obviously a mistake, but I still don't concede that "Bush lied" to take us to war. I singled out comments by Keith Olbermann as an example of criticism that was particularly vindictive. I didn't cite it specifically, but I recall one of his all-out assaults on the Bush administration coming after it was revealed that Osama bin Laden's former bodyguard and driver could be held indefinitely at Guantanamo following his trial. Olbermann said the Bush administration was "urinating" on the rights and freedoms every American soldier had ever fought to win and protect.
Had I anticipated the question, I might have added Kanye West's 2005 offhand remark during NBC's A Concert for Hurricane Relief that "George Bush doesn't care about black people," even as the president's AIDS relief program was up and running, and by 2009, had saved more than 1.1 million African lives, according to the Stanford University Medical Center. Earlier aspersions from Democrats and the media led columnist Charles Krauthammer, also a certified psychiatrist, to coin the condition "Bush Derangement Syndrome" in a 2003 Washington Post column as "the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency - nay - the very existence of George W. Bush."
Turning directly to the man's question, I then said I believed the treatment of Obama had been exponentially worse. I noted that it didn't appear to have its origin in any particular policy, but rather, existed from the outset of his first term. In the days preceding Obama's swearing-in, now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly said, "If he's for it, we have to be against it," and, "We can't let [him] succeed," during a Republican strategy session.
Thereafter Obama has drudged through such scurrilous opposition as the "birther" movement; Rep. Joe Wilson's insolently interjecting "you lie" into Obama's 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress; Glenn Beck's calling him a "racist" with "a deep-seated hatred for white people" during a Fox News appearance in 2009; Donald Trump's suggesting in 2011 that Obama's birth certificate could state "he's a Muslim"; and, since 2008, Obama's being called "uppity," "that boy," "tar baby," "socialist dictator," and compared to Adolf Hitler - all by U.S. congressmen.
I concluded by noting that Obama leaves the White House in 18 months, and while there appears no prospect that his treatment will change in the interim, we should view the election as a reset of the way in which we treat our chief executives. Whoever his successor might be, he or she is deserving of more deference than Obama was ever afforded.
Judging by the applause, the audience agreed.