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The Heckling Order

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Hi! I'm still working on becoming not just a Washington insider (I live and work inside the Beltway, so by some geographical standard, I am already an "insider") but the ultimate Washington insider. It started as a joke, but now that I'm starting to realize what a negative connotation the term has, I'm deadly serious about this mission.

Negative? Well, Vice President Cheney, for instance, is an ultimate Washington insider. I want to be like him.

Then there are the outsiders, including the subject of this post: Hecklers. They make a great foil for insiders or anyone who gets to be "on stage."

Sticking with Cheney for a second, remember that time a heckler managed to get close enough to yell, directly at the VP: "Go f**k yourself, Mr. Cheney! Go f**k yourself!" -- an allusion, of course, to Mr. Cheney's famous riposte to Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor, which had started as a private insult from one insider to another, then got out. But just as rich was the reporter's straightfaced question that followed: "Are you getting a lot of that, Mr. Vice President?" Don't we wish.

Peter Baker's important but under-noticed story in the Washington Post about the White House handbook for keeping dissent(ers) out of President Bush's appearances fell victim, I'm afraid, to the outrage fatigue many are experiencing after seven years of this administration. Is the handbook an unacceptable breach of the spirit of our democracy? Yep. Now just throw it on the pile.

What counts as heckling may be changing. As press conferences become more and more one-sided (i.e., the speaker takes no questions) the important queries have to be yelled out of turn, heckler style.

So, is a credentialed White House correspondent's shouted question heckling? When Karl Rove gave his teary-eyed goodbye statement with President Bush, they took no questions, so as they walked away CBS' Bill Plante yelled audaciously at their backs: "If he's so smart, how come you lost Congress?"

As bona fide reporters get relegated to heckler status and potential hecklers increasingly aren't allowed in at all, we relish the heckling that beats the odds and happens.

Yesterday someone (do we knew who it was yet? I want to buy him a drink) yelled, in a sneering voice, "Hey, what if you were gay? Come out of the closet!" at Senator Larry Craig as he left his public-statement reading. I let out an "ooo-hoo"-type laugh and felt a little spasm in the pit of my stomach. Part of the fun of witnessing heckling is that we all know how much pluck it takes to pull it off. So our laughter or approval or even disapproval is the surprised kind, infused with admiration for the heckler. Heckling upends the established power structure deliciously for a moment.

(Meanwhile, to give a counterexample, this "prank" is just stupid and not funny at all, a creaky insider-to-insider joke that had to be phoned in by the lame [duck] White House staff directly to the insider media.)

So, while I've still got some outsiderness going, I think I'd like to do some old-fashioned heckling at the next "thing" I attend. I'll let you know how it goes.

I guess in a way bloggers are hecklers. Their freedom to say whatever they want irritates and afflicts the credentialed journalists and other powerholders, who, just like in the offline world, can choose to ignore or engage with the heckler. The bloggers, in turn, are "heckled" by commenters, who then "heckle" one another in the comments section. It's the heckling order.