As disturbing as it was when Neil Munro of the bottom-feeding right-wing publication the Daily Caller heckled President Obama last week, some of the condemnations of Munro have a disturbing royalist undertone to them. The phrase that keeps popping up is “respect for the office.” Conservatives and liberals alike are making the point, the most recent example being my friend Dana Milbank in the Washington Post, who accuses Munro of “debasing the presidency itself.”
This wave of fretting over respect for the institution implies that we owe the president more respect than we owe other Americans — a common belief, but one at odds with the democratic spirit. In his farewell address, Jimmy Carter (or his speechwriter, Hendrik Hertzberg) summed up that spirit quite pithily when he said that he “will lay down my official responsibilities in this office to take up once more the only title in our democracy superior to that of president, the title of citizen.”
The problem with Munro’s heckling of Obama is that heckling is wrong, whether the speaker is president or a candidate for the PTA. You don’t start screaming at somebody in the middle of prepared remarks. You wait until the speech is over. Likewise, the deranged smears of Obama that have lurked unmolested around the edges of the Republican Party — Birtherism and other wild theories — can be faulted on the simple grounds that they are insane. You don’t need to invoke any special rights for the president to attack them.
This urge to express condemnations of right-wing ugliness as an affront to the dignity of the presidency — and not merely as an affront to a level of decency owed to one and all — implies that we owe the president more respect or deference than we owe other Americans. Hardly anybody spells out that argument, because to spell it out would be to expose its ridiculousness.
The President commands a vast apparatus designed to imbue him with dignity — the backdrops of the White House, a team of speechwriters, saluting military members, Secret Service, Air Force One. All these things may be necessary for the functioning of the job, but they also create an atmosphere of grandeur and quasi-royalty that’s at odds with what is supposed to be a public servant. Whatever we think of the person who holds the job at any particular moment — I happen to respect him a lot — the presidency itself has, if anything, too much public esteem.