Presidents should have to earn respectBy John Brinkerhoff | 04/10/2011 11:20pm
I was a bit perplexed when I read the article, “We should respect the presidency,” in last Thursday’s Crimson White. In it the author argued that, “over the years, the title of the American president has grown increasingly tarnished because of the media.” She continues by saying, in no uncertain terms, that to the American people, the president is simply an over glorified celebrity whose office has neither respect nor admiration.
While it would be impossible to deny that recent presidents from both sides of the aisle have been the butt of jokes from comedians and late night commentators, I do question not only the author’s conclusion that this joking has resulted in a lack of understanding about what the presidency means, but also her historical perspective.
She promoted the idea that there was some golden age of presidential campaigning, when Americans “were released from work to hear (the president) speak” and where “there was little room for rebuttal on his final decision.” Simply put, this assumption is false—both ridiculous and polarizing claims by the media have always found a home in American politics.
For example, following Thomas Jefferson’s election, a Connecticut newspaper predicted that America would become a place where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.” And while the author is correct in asserting that there was no public resentment of Lincoln’s theater habits, he was called such names as “buffoon,” “usurper,” “land-pirate” and “a long, lean, lank, lantern-jawed, high cheeked-bone spavined rail-splitting stallion.”
In fact, most modern political discourse could be considered quite reasonable and tame compared to earlier centuries. In the election of 1828, one candidate was called a pimp for the czar of Russia, while the other was accused of marrying a whore.
Beyond historical misconceptions, the belief that the media focus on tangential items, such as Obama’s trip to Hawaii, serves to both set the public approval of the presidential office and decide who wins elections is a bit hyperbolic. At the very least, the American public is intelligent enough to base their perceptions of a president on something more substantive than that.
George Bush’s low approval did not stem from Will Ferrell’s impressions of him, but rather, from the perception that he led America into an unpopular war while simultaneously driving the economy into a ditch.
Conversely, Ronald Reagan’s sky high approval ratings and landslide electoral victories were not the products of his much publicized love of jelly beans, but because of the widespread view that he ushered in the end of the Cold War and rescued a flailing economy.
Regardless of their accuracy, these perceptions do demonstrate that the presidential office is judged by more tangible factors than a “picture of Bush pressing a kick me sign on President Obama’s back.”
Perhaps I am naïve, but I find it hard to believe that a truly moderate and undecided voter would base their presidential preference on “a recent paparazzi photo.”
In fact, it could even be said that any media action demeaning the presidency is dictated by public perception, rather than the other way around. Polarizing comedy or celebrity style reporting is designed to appeal to each party’s base. They are effective because they reinforce already held beliefs. The people who find Bushisms funny or think that Obama filling out a March Madness bracket makes him a bad president are most likely dedicated conservatives or liberals, respectively, and already know where their vote is going.
Despite all of these concerns, the author does make a valid point when she says, “the level of respect for the leader of our nation should have at least some standard.” However, this standard should not be judged on the basis of rhetoric and whether the American people possess a blind admiration for their president as “a mythic leader, the kind with dignity, grace, and the opportunity to be on money.” The standard of respect should be judged on the basis of action and a willingness to respect the legitimacy of the institution as a whole.
The government is completely dependent upon the people’s respect for the government and for the most part, Americans pay their taxes and follow laws, even if they do not completely agree with the administration. That alone is more indicative of the respect Americans hold for the presidency than polarizing media claims. If we were to judge the success of our country on the holistic quality of political discourse, then America would have been doomed from its start.
John Brinkerhoff is a freshman majoring in political science and communication studies. His column runs biweekly on Mondays.