Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The High Road

Early in my ninth year, I found myself out on my school’s playground, in the grasp of a large galoot whom I had previously thought of as a friendly.

This member of my third-grade class had me by the arm, and was playfully whacking me with his free arm. He was smiling. I was relinquishing my own smile, in exchange for a muttered, “um, hey.”

My classmate’s free arm – the one executing the whacking – was partly encased in a cast. Being as this was during the early days of the Gerald Ford administration, it wasn’t one of those lightweight flexible air-cast things that are used nowadays.

His wrist and forearm were encased, basically, in shaped rock.

It kinda hurt.

I let this go on for a few days, turning the other cheek, taking the high road … and then one night I told my parents about it all, over supper.

My non-violence-espousing, turn-the-other-cheek, do-unto-others, decent parents did something that totally, utterly shocked me.

They signed me up for karate lessons.

Several wintry months later, I had completed a series of Saturday mornings in which I got used to the idea of making violent contact with other human beings – in a controlled and disciplined environment. That was entirely outside my experience (except, perhaps, for the disagreements I had with my younger sister, and even those wrestling matches I usually lost).

But aside from some sparring matches during which I was out of my league – somehow, the instructor thought I was good enough to compete with a couple of otherwise genuinely friendly boys who were a solid belt-color-level above me, which ought to tell you more about the instructor than it tells you about me or my competition – I actually was really good at making contact. And performing those pantomimical forms – downward block, punch, kick, upward block, discount double-check… And I even made those hi-yat-su! grunts pretty well (also not a super-large part of my personality).

Recess. Spring day. Playground. Alleged friend. Smile. Grasp. Cast.

Raised eyebrow. Punch in the stomach.

Kid never came near me again.

Last night was the State of the Union speech.

I know. Your head just whiplashed. Stay with me now.

The annual tradition in Washington, on a Tuesday evening each January since Woodrow Wilson was president, is for the president to ascend the speaker’s platform in the House chamber of the US Capitol and address a joint session of Congress, to give a brief overview of how the last year went, and what plans he (or, someday, she) might have for the coming year.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Capitol building. Two summers ago, I was there as a tourist. Along with my tourist compatriots, I felt an undeniable need to maintain an air of dignity and decorum in the midst of the truly impressive surroundings of our nation’s loftiest legislative location. Beyond my thoughts about all the truly momentous people who had strode through those corridors, all the important decisions that had been made in that building, all the important quotes from American history (“a day which will live in infamy”) that had been launched from that podium … the place has décor that kinda demands that people behave very well indeed.

You’d think so, anyway.

During President Obama’s first State of the Union address, a Republican member of the House of Representatives shouted “you lie!” in response to one of the President’s assertions. It drew an audible gasp from a large portion of the assembled legislators and spectators. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shot a stare out in the direction of the outburst that reminded me very strongly of one of my elementary school teachers after a back-row yahoo belched loudly in the middle of silent reading time.) You just don’t do that! … Or, you didn’t. Until now, I guess.

During one of Mr. Obama’s later State of the Union speeches, Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito vigorously shook his head “no”, in response to another of the President’s assertions. Traditionally, Supreme Court justices who attend the speech do not react in any way to the speech, yea or nay – they stare stoically straight ahead. … Or, they did. Until now, I guess.

I don’t recall any such reactions to the assertions of any past President, Republican or Democratic. Members of Congress never treated any President, from Wilson to Bush 43, with anything but applause (from polite to passionate), the occasional standing ovations, and the otherwise ubiquitous quiet deference and focused attention. Even Bill Clinton, whose foibles got him into various versions of hot water with the press, the public, and his Congressional colleagues, wasn’t treated like this. It has always been understood that, well, we’ll present the opposition-party response to the speech, and we’ll go on “Meet the Press”, and we’ll write op-eds, and we’ll get back at him that way.

Until this Administration, I guess.

Last night, on the way to a larger assertion, Mr. Obama began a paragraph with the preparatory clause, “I have no more campaigns to run, …”

A significant number of legislators applauded sarcastically. As if this were a middle-school assembly and a kid running for student council president was making his campaign speech and screwing it up.

At this moment, the President had a choice.

He could have proceeded with the rest of the paragraph, trying to make his hecklers (hecklers!?) look bad by just ignoring the interruption and trusting the American public to write its elected representatives and chastise them themselves.

Yeah, not likely.

He could have stopped, looked out at the clapping Congresspeople, and (as he has done at some other public events) gently murmured, “now, come on, we don’t have to do that.” Whatever has been his way of dealing with people in private, which we really cannot know, this “let’s all be civil here” reasonableness has been his public personality, over the course of his time in office. Once, he offered a couple of demonstrators the opportunity to talk with him after his speech was over, and then made good on that offer, directing the Secret Service to bring the men backstage so they could present their case to him in person.

He could have taken the low road. Gotten actively angry in the middle of that speech. Or, today, in his first speech after last night’s address, he might have lashed out at the Republican-controlled House or Senate. After six years of having bitten his tongue hard, of taking the high road, one might have forgiven him for having a brief moment of “…are ya kidding me?”

For six years, Mr. Obama has taken it on the chin from his political opponents, consistently and relentlessly. Sometimes they’ve been needlessly personal. Often the name-calling has been hilariously contradictory (you can’t be a feckless, weak President and a dictator at the same time, friends).

And often the policy arguments have been contradictory, too. In the first day after the capture of the mastermind behind the Libyan embassy attacks last year, the President’s opponents criticized him both for not achieving the capture soon enough and for rushing to capture the man so Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could trumpet the success during her appearance on Fox News the following night.

I have the feeling that if the President were to suggest that the sky was blue, someone would pout, “well, it’s cloudy where I’m standing.”

The President has endured attacks on his wife. For transgressions such as, she’s showing too much of her (frankly ripped) upper arms … she looks like she’s rolling her eyes at the Speaker of the House during a state dinner …too this, too that, pick, pick, pick …

But at least Mrs. Obama is an adult and by way of being First Lady, she’s a public figure and therefore, in terms of criticism, will be an eligible receiver. It happens. Same goes for being the actual President. You’re thin-skinned and hopelessly naive if you make it to the White House and still don’t get that.

The President has endured attacks on his kids. (Ostensibly as a way of attacking him. This is what some of his critics think of as clever.) This has traditionally been kinda frowned upon. Leave the kids out of it, as has been suggested in this space previously. Even so, the President has refrained from explaining to the critics of his children at just which bus stop they need to step off.

I admire this. If it were me, and my niece and nephew were treated like Malia and Sasha have been treated on occasion, I would be sorely tempted to recall my third-grade karate lessons.

So, in some small way, I was disappointed last night, when the President didn’t pause, look out at the Congress, and say something like, “…–Really?” Or…

Are you fking kidding me?” Or…

At some point in your miserable, politics-of-personal-destruction, inexplicably-elected lives, are you actually going to attempt to portray grownups?” Or…

Do you not see where you are, what responsibilities you’ve been elected to carry out, how many people across the world are watching how you behave and who you are?” Or…

Do I have to pull this Congress over?”

He didn’t, though.

This morning, he’s being lauded in many quarters for distributing what Slate.com called an “instantly legendary ad-libbed burn”:

He looked out, raised an eyebrow, clearly looked as if his thought bubble was reading, “oh, I get it. We’re still playing that game. It’s still gon’ be like that”, and went off-script. Question: how do I know I have no more campaigns to run? Answer:

I know, ’cause I won both of them.”

He will take truckloads of, forgive me, crap for that, in certain other fair ‘n’ balanced quarters, by the end of today. (“Disgracing the office of the President!”, no doubt.)

And it wasn’t probably as satisfying to the President as “going off on them” would’ve been.

But a little satisfying.

I don’t know; maybe this morning he’s regretting not taking the high road and just ignoring it all.

I didn’t regret that punch in the stomach. But I’m not the President, and I haven’t spent the last six years being called a Fascist Nazi Kenyan Socialist Muslim usurper.

This essay has nothing to do with politics. I promise. And it has nothing to do with whether I’m a big fan of the President, or a big detractor.

This has to do with standards of behavior.

It reminded me of a quote which has been one of my favorites for a long time, and speaks to this moment rather eloquently, if unintentionally.

It wasn’t one of his Starred Thoughts™; instead it was a quote from a magazine interview with the director of my alma mater’s band. In it, he was describing the culture that had been built, over the course of many years, that allowed him to not worry about what first impression his band was going to give people when it went on the road for an away football game, or a parade, or an exhibition, or a rest-area stop for food, or whatever.

There are standards — standards of behavior, standards of how to project the image of the band, which is the image of the university, which is of course the image of themselves.”

One could say that a lot of our elected officials “could stand to improve” on that front … except that their unlikeliness to improve is given away by their pesky ol’ body of work.

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January 21, 2015 - Posted by | current events, government, news, Starred Thoughts | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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