When an outraged Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at President George W. Bush during a visit to Baghdad, the incident was fodder for jokes and snickers. Mostly we laughed at the president’s lightning-quick reaction and the failure of the Secret Service to stop the guy from throwing not one, but two shoes. But even those of us who believe that President Bush is among the nation’s worst presidents reacted with a mixture of shock and genuine concern that the president of the United States had been so powerfully humiliated and potentially endangered. (Thank goodness it was only a shoe.)
To have an Iraqi throw a shoe at him in Baghdad might have been a fitting metaphor for Bush’s disastrous policies, but as an event in real-time, in which the president of the United States had to duck for cover to keep from getting beaned by a pair of powerfully lobbed missiles, it wasn’t that funny. The shoe-thrower, of course, was an Iraqi whose country had been leveled on the basis of a contrived threat, promoted by that U.S. president. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have reportedly been killed since American bombs first fell in 2003. This doesn’t make the journalist’s attempted assault on the president excusable, but somewhat understandable. The fact that the shoe-thrower was criminally tried and convicted (and released only last week) suggests that he paid a very dear price for his moment of guerilla theater.
When a verbal shoe is thrown at the president by a member of the U.S. Congress, in a joint session of Congress, there is nothing that can explain or excuse it. This is not Iraq. And Rep. Joe Wilson is not a disgruntled citizen in an occupied and defeated nation. He’s a highly paid U.S. congressman in a free and Democratic country, with a host of legitimate means at his disposal to have his views heard by the president of the United States.
Of course, we can and perhaps should ignore Rep. Joe Wilson’s actions and move quickly to talking about health care. But Wilson’s shouted insult is just the latest in a long line of insults hurled at President Barack Obama by some Republicans, and they seem unlikely to abate soon. It began within weeks of Obama taking office. That’s when the former chief of staff to George W. Bush (and now possible Massachusetts Senate candidate) Andy Card accused President Obama of disrespecting the Oval Office by not wearing a coat and tie. No matter that President Bush had dressed in almost identical business casual wear in the Oval Office. President Obama, Card implied, had besmirched and belittled the honor of the office in a way that President Bush had not.
More recently, some Republicans and their most extreme constituents denounced the president’s speech to schoolchildren at the end of summer vacation. Their concern? That the president would indoctrinate and presumably contaminate the minds of their children.
And of course, we are still dealing with the claims of “birthers”—individuals who, with the encouragement of elected Republican representatives have insisted that President Obama was not born in the United States. They first insisted that he produce his birth certificate, and once it was produced deemed it to be a fake. Then they produced their own fake birth certificate, which any teenager could have learned after two Google searches could not possibly have been issued in Kenya. Facts don’t matter. What does matter is the stomach roiling certainty that this America—one in which an intellectually gifted, mature, ethical and inspiring black man convinced a majority of American voters to elect him as president—does not line up with the America that some seem to think they were promised.
All of these elaborate and theatrical displays of disrespect reflect how race is played in the 21st century. Race is cast as a kind of indicia of illegitimacy. It’s ugly, but I suppose coy compared to using blatantly racist language to oppose the first black president of the United States. Instead, Wilson, the birthers and some other Republicans continue to suggest by their conduct that the president doesn’t deserve respect, that he doesn’t understand, respect or deserve the emoluments of office, and most dangerously that he’s “not one of us.” He’s a threatening “other” who’s come to destroy our “way of life.”
Liberal Democrats have some experience dealing with a president they deem illegitimate. The contested election of 2000 and the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to end the recount and essentially ensure the presidential ascent of George W. Bush is a continuing source of ire on the left. But when President Bush gave his State of the Union addresses—8 in all—no elected member of Congress shouted that he was a liar from the well of the Congress. Even when he said things like “we don’t torture” and “a smoking gun may become a mushroom cloud.” Without question, many liberal Democrats thought (rightfully) that he was lying. But they accorded George Bush with the respect the office deserves.
There is an element of the Republican Party that will not accord that same respect to the presidency of Barack Obama. Their incivility is not driven by their disagreement with President Obama’s policies. Republicans have many ways of expressing their substantive disagreements with the president on health care reform, the stimulus and a host of other policy decisions.
The deliberate disrespect some Republicans have shown toward President Obama is an expression of their resistance to the very idea of him as president. They challenge him for having the temerity to think that he can be the face of America. Their actions are designed to put him in what they believe is his place.
And there are no consequences for this conduct. Despite his written apology, Rep. Wilson is, as fellow South Carolinian and House Majority Whip James Clyburn noted, largely without remorse. He’s unlikely to be censured by the House. In fact, he’s already on his way to becoming a folk hero for a certain element of the Republican Party, although contributions to his Democratic opponent continue to rise, Wilson may see very few joint sessions of Congress in his future. Some Republicans, like Sen. John McCain, immediately and admirably rebuked Wilson’s actions and demanded that he apologize, but most Republican leaders would understandably prefer to simply forget the incident.
The good news is that President Obama is not going anywhere. He smartly won’t even waste his time engaging with those Republicans whose conduct shows that they are stuck in the first half of the 20th century. We shouldn’t either. But neither should we ignore or whitewash the fact that resistance to the very idea of Obama as president is a symptom of racial “growing pains” that, for some, may get worse before they get better. And as Sen. Arlen Specter observed in pushing for censure of Rep. Wilson, “if you can do that to the president and get away with it, then it’s open season.”
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.