"Dear Sasha and Malia, I get your (sic) both in those awful teen years but you're a part of the First Family. Try showing a little class. At least respect the part you play. Then again, your mother and father don't respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter, so I'm guessing you're coming up a little short in the 'good role model' department."
- Post by Elizabeth Lauten, former communications director for Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), November 27, 2014
Number three son roared into our suburban Virginia house that afternoon when he was in the seventh grade. "I had to go tell the counselor what she should do," he fumed, explaining why he was on the late bus, not the early one I expected. "Those kids were calling the Japanese boys names and taunting them. I told her she had to stop the boys from doing that because they were diplomats' sons and couldn't talk back."
This family incident leapt to mind as Elizabeth Lauten's hateful post criticizing the President's daughters for their appearance at the ceremony pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey went viral. Actually, however, it wasn't so much her remarks, snarky as they were, as the Facebook posts (yes, grandmothers do FB if only to keep track of their kids and grandkids) others put up agreeing with her, particularly on the Fox News site, that triggered my reaction.
My US Foreign Service officer husband and I raised four children in a succession of public fishbowls around the world. Whether they liked it or not, they were viewed as representatives of the US government and the American people. Until our son gushed out his concern for the harassment his Japanese diplomatic schoolmates had to just take, I hadn't realized how much he had swallowed because he was a diplomat's son living where he was extremely visible.
Our children -- me, too, for that matter -- were adjuncts of an official representative of the United States. Consequently, we were expected to think carefully about the effect of what we did and said. At the same time, they were kids doing what kids do, not US representatives. Even so, children were never given credit for the fact that their presence in the countries where we lived demonstrated American family values.
The Obama girls are in the same no-choice-in-the-matter position magnified exponentially. Even though, by tradition, a president's children are off bounds, far too many Americans who don't like this President feel free to make whatever derogatory comments they want, because they want to, not because the remarks are called for. Would you like to be window dressing for the pardon of a turkey?
What this staffer and others forget is that they can go around without being noticed -- unless they post ill advised remarks that go viral. In which case, their pasts as teenagers get exposed on social media. The Obama girls, who are growing into graceful young women, are noticed and on display every time they go out.
More revealing and less commented on, however, was the contempt Elizabeth Lauten felt free to express about the President and his wife:
"...your mother and father don't respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter..."
Disrespect their positions or the nation? Based on what? Simply not being her choice of a leader? Espousing positions contrary to hers and her boss's? Issuing executive orders? Or just being the people they are and in the White House?
Granted Ms. Lauten is an ardent Republican and disagrees with the President. She may well loathe him. She has that right. Granted, too, that she and those who agree with her have the right to express their views, however discourteous and obnoxious.
Nor is she alone in her clear disregard for this President. The dissonance of disrespect for President Obama and his wife -- the downright rage hurled at them -- began with his first campaign and has gained momentum ever since.
As soon as he was elected, the opposition announced that their goal was for him to fail. Maybe because they lost. Maybe because they disagree with the Democrats' ideas and agenda. Maybe because of how many Americans see him (and the family) as Other. One of my neighbors seethed that "America just can't have a Black President," the morning after he won the first time.
Disrespect for the President has became more and more overt. This cacophony, churned together, magnified by the media and social media echo chambers, has come full boil during and after the recent Mid-Term. Beyond the obvious "lame duck" and "legacy" memes, "imperial presidency," "arrogant" "distanced," and other such disrespectful comments reverberate around the media, Capitol Hill and partisan organizations. Then they are turned into snide posts (the president as Caesar, or Hitler for instance) on Social Media to be 'liked,' and amplified as they turn up on other friends' walls, 'like' and expletive ladened snark piled upon 'like.' On top of which come calls for shutdown, censure, impeachment, even cancelling the State of the Union address, as expressions of loathing and revenge.
Granted, belittling and disrespect isn't targeted solely on the President or only goes one way. Granted, many Americans see all this the other way round. Granted that at least some members of both Houses feel disrespected and by-passed, never mind what they haven't done. Granted, too, that the President is not as popular as he was when he was elected, even in his own party. Granted, as well, that a large segment of the country feels that their vision of "the way America has always been" is sliding away and are enraged. Nonetheless, the sum total is an angry, poisonous atmosphere on all sides that makes much-needed problem solving or even functioning as a nation well nigh impossible. Many of us are beyond fed up with that at all levels.
The other worrying implication of Ms. Lauten's comment about the President disrespecting the nation combined with the wider usage of "Americans said" by the new majority in Congress is the assumption that they alone speak for us. And since the President is not doing what they want he disrespects the "will of the people." Not so. They speak for some. But many of us don't agree with them or with that assumption, even when we do not always agree with the President either. We simply recognize they won the leadership of both houses in this election and we have to live with it for the next two years.
As a nation we speak with many voices. We are an increasingly polyglot people with varied beliefs and understandings of what is important, how best to achieve that, and how we are American.
The United States faces far too many problems that have gone untended for years, swamped in partisan obstructionism, that need addressing now. Immediately after the Mid-term, the incoming Senate Majority Leader and others spoke of governing, seeking common ground and "common sense" solutions.
Most of us would like real governing and were buoyed by the prospect, even a day late and a dollar short. If there is a mandate from this election, it is that Americans want a functional government. Some of us may want it more active and hands-on. Others of us may want it smaller, more tightly focused. But most of us want government to function (yes, some don't). To actually do something.
Actually doing something cannot happen without civil discourse. Without individuals and our elected officials listening to each other, even those with whom we disagree; perhaps especially to those with whom we disagree. Without waiting for the other guy to take the first step. Without recognizing that real compromise is essential, where no one gets all of what they want but everyone gets some of it. Without rebuilding mutual trust and basic respect.
Achieving this requires a change in discourse. If that is to happen, all Americans must play a part; a part we each need to recognize. Not by remaining silent but by finding ways to address disagreements respectfully -- face to face, on line, in public as the case arises. By recognizing when to remain silent, when to say "enough." By attempting to say hard things gently. By knowing when to do as my Southern Methodist pastor's wife grandmother did, regularly writing her Senator, the virulent racist Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, to tell him that his actions were un-Christian. That is not the message required now. But knowing when it is important to call out our elected representatives if they revert to bickering rather than governing is.
Which comes full circle to the level of open disrespect for this President, which is worse than anything I have ever witnessed. Simply by being married to my diplomat husband, in the view of the people we lived among, I have in effect represented both the American people and every American president from Eisenhower to Reagan. Since then, working abroad unofficially during the Administrations of both Bushes, Clinton and Obama, I have been viewed as an American and therefore been held responsible for them and their actions. I agreed with some of these presidents, disagreed with others, voted for some, didn't vote for others. But I respected them even when I did not like them or what they did.
Each President holds the only office in the United States voted on by all of us. We do not need to agree with our President, but we should remember that, like it or not, each is chosen by a majority of us for this honor. The honor deserves respect. That's class.