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The GOP's Ongoing Lack of Respect

Posted: 10/28/11 01:47 PM ET

People all over America recognize that the creation of jobs is the top issue facing our nation. But when President Obama requested to address a joint session of Congress on the issue, unlike any president in memory, he was told he must come back the next day.

During an address to both Houses, a Republican Member of Congress interrupts the president's speech and shouts out, "You lie." No one can recall such an act of disrespect to a sitting president.

In response to a smear campaign during the fall of 2008 alleging that he was not born in the United States, then-Senator Barack Obama proclaims that he was born in Hawaii. For months, many Republican elected officials give evasive and ambiguous answers when asked if they believe the president was born in the United States. When the GOP presidential candidate, who at that time was leading in the polls, directly challenges whether the president was born in America, President Obama releases all records of his birth. No American president had ever been compelled to do so.

Barack Obama is the first president to be asked to produce his birth certificate. He may be the first president to have ever been told to wait another day to address a joint session of Congress. And he certainly is the first president to be interrupted by a shout calling him a liar during a speech to our nation's Congress.

As uncomfortable as it may make us feel, there is another obvious first when it comes to Barack Obama. President Obama did not approach our nation asking to become the first African-American president. Instead, he asked for the opportunity to become the next president in a long line of leaders tackling the crises of their times. The context of our times, however, requires us to acknowledge the historic nature of his election and the special responsibility it imposes on all of us in our national political debate. As supporters of the president, we acknowledge our responsibility to defend and respect the rights of all who disagree with the president and criticize his policies. The president's critics and opponents, however, also share a special responsibility -- to denounce, repudiate and reject any remnant of our racially tarnished history. All American presidents deserve respect, and all American voters deserve candidates who will confront bigotry, and not sit in convenient silence when it rears its ugly head.

Recently, one of the leading Republican candidates for president, Texas Governor Rick Perry was reported to have taken friends, colleagues and contributors hunting on a ranch widely known as Niggerhead -- a name visible on a large rock at its entrance. This word is not simply a socially unacceptable expression. Our painful history -- both centuries ago and very recently -- shows that the use of the "N" word often preceded acts of violence. Viola Liuzzo and Rev. James Reeb were called N-word lovers before they were murdered. Most recently James Anderson was murdered in Mississippi and the young white perpetrator reportedly said, "I ran that n****r over."

Though it is in dispute as to whether Governor Perry ever objected to the name, tried to change it, or if he stopped hunting at the ranch, it seems indisputable that these reports caused barely a ripple in the tide of the Republican presidential campaign. Where were the Republican voices of outrage -- or at least concern -- about these reports? Why was there time to discuss Gardasil injections, marriage covenants and gays in the military, but no time to deal with this painful reminder of an America that none of us claims to want?

If, as Herman Cain says, "it's time to move on," what exactly are we "moving on" from? And where are we headed? Are we moving on from the disrespect shown to President Obama over his birth certificate? Not when Governor Perry said recently that he is "not sure" whether the president's birth certificate is "real." Are we moving on to a politics where we give the president enough respect to put his jobs bill up for a vote? Not according to House Republicans who refuse to consider the proposal or give Congress the opportunity for an up-down vote.

Whether we support or reject the president's policies, we should all reject systematic disrespect of any president. The pattern of disrespect shown to President Obama, coupled with the deafening silence from Republicans over the disturbing reports of Governor Perry's hunting ranch, confronts the GOP with an opportunity -- and an obligation -- to stand up and speak out for the America to which we all should aspire.