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Respecting The President

The WaPo's "Reliable Source" has some tidbit about a new minifilm that Rory Kennedy has shot about Helen Thomas, who is a "hero" of Kennedy's "Simply because she asks the questions--continually, relentlessly, and singularly." (I'd link to Jon Chait's 2006 piece deconstructing Thomas's strange status as liberal icon, "Thomas Pain," but...altogether now!...our web archives are a disaster.)

Since Thomas was too ill to attend the screening, former press secretaries and journalists shared their "Helen stories." Presumably trying to convey Thomas's stated mission of questioning presidents, "perhaps irreverently, to bring them down a size," CBS's Bill Plante asserted: "We don't owe presidents any respect except respect for the office."

Whoo hoo! Way to give em hell, Bill! Except... I disagree. At least, I think I do: that whole respect-for-the-office-but-not-the- man thing sounds good in theory, but how it plays out in practice is much fuzzier.  

For instance, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks our current commander-in-chief is less impressive. (The term "strategically-shaved chimpanzee" constantly leaps to mind.) But would I ever be disrespectful to Bush in person? No. And not just out of Respect for the Office (not to mention fear that my entire family would be the last prisoners shipped to Gitmo). For all his mind-boggling flaws, Bush has spent the past eight years serving as leader of this nation. Did he cover himself--or the nation--in glory? Hardly. But it's a shit job, and anyone who labors in it deserves a little respect. It's not just that I wouldn't spit on the office. I wouldn't spit on the man either. 

I think about it in much the same way I think about service members. Do I respect every last individual soldier and sailor for their service--as opposed to just respecting the uniform in general? Absolutely. They have dedicated themselves to the public good in a way that most of us would never dream of. But do I think that I would respect the individual nature of every serviceman and woman? Not a chance. I respect them for serving their country; beyond that, I'm quite confident that some of them are totally reprehensible assholes who beat their kids and cheat on their taxes just like civilians.

Anyway, I'm not sure it's really journalists' job to "bring presidents down to size." They do, after all, need to retain a certain stature in order to do their job. We should demand accountability and honesty from them. We shouldn't let them bullshit or intimidate us into submission. And if we think they have become irretrievably corrupt, we should help drive them from office. Barring that, we do owe them a bit of personal deference for their service, even when we think they're doing a crap job.

Then again, maybe I'm just splitting semantic hairs. But what the hell, it's Friday.

 --Michelle Cottle