Context Is Everything

In the wake of Daily Caller reporter Neil Munro's heckling of President Obama the other day (I called him an "asshat," a judgment I'll stand by), many people argued that we should be respecting "the office of the presidency," even if you don't like the person who occupies it. Jonathan Chait says this is wrong:

This wave of fretting over respect for the institution implies that we owe the president more respect than we owe other Americans — a common belief, but one at odds with the democratic spirit. In his farewell address, Jimmy Carter (or his speechwriter, Hendrik Hertzberg) summed up that spirit quite pithily when he said that he "will lay down my official responsibilities in this office to take up once more the only title in our democracy superior to that of president, the title of citizen."

The problem with Munro's heckling of Obama is that heckling is wrong, whether the speaker is president or a candidate for the PTA. You don’t start screaming at somebody in the middle of prepared remarks. You wait until the speech is over. Likewise, the deranged smears of Obama that have lurked unmolested around the edges of the Republican Party — Birtherism and other wild theories — can be faulted on the simple grounds that they are insane. You don't need to invoke any special rights for the president to attack them.

There's something to this, but I think what has really gone on for the last few years is not that Republicans stopped respecting the office of the presidency, it's that they stopped believing there were contexts in which it was inappropriate to express their contempt. It doesn't disrespect the office to say the president is lying, if that's what you think. Presidents have lied before, and will again. What's inappropriate is shouting it out in the middle of the State of the Union. If Obama had been walking a rope line when Munro yelled his question at him, it would have been perfectly fine. The understanding of context is what separates someone with a strong but reasonable opinion from someone who's just being a dick. Conservatives' hatred of Barack Obama is so powerful that they seem to have concluded that it needs to be expressed, no matter what the context.

As for respecting the office, it doesn't demand all that much more than understanding the context you're in and acting appropriately given that context. But the reason these things continue to happen could be that people like Joe Wilson or Neil Munro don't get to be in the President's presence very often, so when they do, their hatred is like a tiger breaking out of its cage. They just can't help themselves.

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