Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin's repeated and dragged-out heckling of President Obama during his drone policy speech is simply the latest in a disgusting and damaging repeat act that has become almost ritual. The White House announces a major policy speech by Obama. Then the predictable happens. Either at the start or midway through his speech, the shouts from the floor begin. The drone policy speech followed the act's script.
It's true that George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were at times heckled, and in Bush's case a shoe was tossed at him. But with Obama the pattern and sheer number of times he's been heckled top anything any former president has received. Counting Benjamin's eruption, the president has been heckled at least 10 times. The topper was the infamous "you lie" rant from Georgia Congressman Joe Wilson during his 2009 State of the Union address.
This pattern of public vilification and insult of Obama during his speeches was set almost from the start of his White House tenure when a small knot of black protestors verbally assailed the president at a Florida stop in 2008 for allegedly not doing enough about predatory lending. The pattern firmly took hold from there, and it virtually became open season to disrupt an Obama speech anywhere and at any time. The tea party didn't help matters with its incessant marches and rallies that routinely featured the vilest, demeaning and borderline racist depictions of Obama. The relentless public heckling of Obama also stems from the even more insidious pattern of pure hate and vilification that spews forth against Obama from a parade of websites, bloggers, talk show jocks and more than a few GOP officials with assorted borderline racist digs and taunts. In 2011, Baylor University researchers tracked more than 20 Facebook page groups and users and found them filled with racist venom aimed at Obama. There may be even more of them today.
Obama had the dubious distinction of being the earliest presidential contender to be assigned Secret Service protection on the 2008 campaign trail. As the showdown with Republican presidential rival John McCain heated up in the general election in 2008, the flood of crank, crackpot and screwball threats that promised murder and mayhem toward Obama continued to pour in. This prompted the Secret Service to tighten security and take even more elaborate measures to ensure his safety.
GOP leaders have on only the rarest of rare occasions issued any public rebuke of the street side abusive depictions and the torrent of verbal broadsides against Obama.
But then again, why would they? The GOP has far superseded any insult that a lone heckler could achieve in its self-designated role as official heckler of Obama. There has not been a moment that has gone by that top GOP congressional leaders have not called Obama out on some issue. The framing of their criticism has not been polite, gentlemanly or exhibited the traditional courtesy and respect for the office of the presidency. This has done much to create a climate of distrust and vilification that has made it near legitimate, even expected, that Obama be heckled. The GOP's official heckling has taken many forms, all mean-spirited and petty, rather than purely the customary expression of opposition to policies that clashing political parties and their leaders show toward each other. For instance, House Speaker John Boehner brashly told Obama in 2011 that he could not deliver his jobs speech on the date that he chose. This was quickly followed by other GOP leaders who loudly said that they would not even bother to attend Obama's speech. Obama changed the date.
The subtle and overt interplay of race, Obama's popularity and the temptation to some of getting fifteen seconds of fame, has become an irresistible and combustible mix. A heckler knows that a well-timed shout at Obama is a surefire guarantee of massive media attention.
Obama has taken two high-ground tacts that have in a sense emboldened some individuals to take extreme license with him. He has steadfastly refused to attribute the official and unofficial heckling to race or nasty, personal politics. He has also been steadfast in standing firm when there's a verbal outburst during one of his speeches of not lashing out at the offender. He noted, as Benjamin was screaming her lungs out even as she was being led away, that he would "go off script." He responded with understanding, congeniality and indulgence. This took patience and showed class. She was even handled with kid gloves in being escorted out.
But unfortunately, this also can serve as a further cue for others to get it in their heads that it's okay to belittle the president while he's speaking. This sends a tacit signal to some that Obama is fair game for a face to face public bashing.
He isn't and shouldn't be. But as the GOP, and sadly far too many others, has discovered, there's a lot of mileage in making Obama the most publicly heckled president ever.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new ebook is How the NRA Terrorizes Congress--The NRA's Subversion of the Gun Control Debate (Amazon). He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.
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