I have a point to make about Kathy Griffin, but let’s get something necessary out of the way first.
There is nothing good to say about her ill-conceived stunt involving a mock-up of the severed head of President Trump. It was no more art than the noose left at the National Museum of African American History and Culture was practice for a merit badge. Her apology, described as “fulsome” by Sen. Al Franken, neglected the object of the prank and, at least as important, his family. And the accompanying video she released demonstrates that she did not need the “reactions of viewers” to persuade her that what she did was inappropriate ― she already knew at the time.
Griffin is not the first entertainer to cross the line (and move the line and cross it again, as she said) in expressing a political opinion. But she has joined a growing cadre of performers who have normalized images and (presumed) behavior that is not only noxious but dangerous. Griffin’s staged picture is not like Robert Mapplethorpe’s controversial photography that ran afoul of taste. It is a visual analog to Ted Nugent’s infamous and profane invitation for then-candidate Barack Obama to “suck on my machine gun.”
So no excuses for Kathy Griffin. (And it is important to note here that I am no relation to her much maligned ex-husband Matt Moline.)
But if we insist on making this incident only about her epic failure in judgment, then we are overlooking the larger problem that our society is facing. It’s not just polarization. It’s not just incivility. It’s not just the accommodation of confrontational comportment.
Instead, it is the normalization of bad behavior. The line that Griffin claims to have crossed, then moved and crossed again was neither her invention nor her exclusive domain. In the 1990s – not so long ago – untoward conduct by the President of the United States resulted in the call to restore dignity to the White House. During the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, inappropriate personal conduct by the Commander in Chief was virtually unknown; critics of their misdeeds had to dig deeply into their youth to find behaviors that crossed the line.
Political opponents of the two presidents were often crude in their attacks, but neither man ever responded in kind, and certainly never initiated boorish behavior. Policy debate was sharp and on many occasions snarky, yet there was never a call for retributive justice against critics by either president or by responsible opponents.
And in spite of the fact that the Secret Service was busier during the Obama administration than any other, even the bloviating voices of talk radio with their outrageous conspiracy fantasies and race-tinged rhetoric largely stopped short of romanticizing criminal acts – Mr. Nugent notwithstanding.
Until candidate Trump. Complaining about the constraints of political correctness (or, as some of us prefer, humane consideration), he stomped on the Constitution, validated violence against dissenters, demeaned people with disabilities, bragged about sexual assault and dismissed due process – remember “lock her up?” – without a history of humor that Kathy Griffin lamely claims.
And if Griffin’s apology fell short, it was at least an apology. Then, and now that he is president, Mr. Trump has steadfastly refused to hold himself responsible for the diminution of respectability that might have been mitigated. Instead there were excuses, all of which boiled down to Bart Simpson on the one hand (“I didn’t do it”) and Bob Fosse on the other hand (“He had it coming”).
In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, nominee Trump arrogated to himself a kind of omnipotence over the political and physical infrastructures, claiming about each “I alone can fix it.” There is actually one aspect of our national malaise that he alone can fix, but he refuses. Owning up to his own shortcomings and the permissions they have created for bad behavior by others would give our elected leader the credibility to repudiate Kathy Griffin.
In the meantime, I take some heart that condemnation of Kathy Griffin’s photo has been near universal and that she has suffered the consequences of her pitiable judgment. Perhaps by moving the line and crossing it one too many times, she has awakened the rest of us to be more attentive to the circumstances that made it possible for her to betray respect for the office of the president and, in the process, demand that our leaders join us in our civil and civic responsibilities.