The public appetite for trivial distraction has always extended to our chief executives.
I remember the minor uproar when Lyndon Johnson lifted a beagle by the ears. There was extensive commentary on Richard Nixon's taste for cottage cheese and ketchup.* And now there is some kind of disturbance in the Force because of a photograph of a Marine holding an umbrella above President Barack Obama.
A friend and colleague commented on Facebook: "He couldn't find an intern to hold an umbrella? A Marine? Disgusting." Enlarging on the comment, he said, "I'd rather see Biden and Boehner out there holding an umbrella instead of two men who were trained to serve and sacrifice, not be marginalized as butlers on the spot."
We can argue whether or not it is dishonorable for a Marine to offer shelter to his commander in chief, but I think there is something a little deeper at work here.
After all, during three decades in the paragraph game, I have repeatedly seen photos of uniformed service members holding umbrellas above the heads of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, which people have started posting on Facebook. It is a fair question to ask why extending this courtesy to Barack Obama is suddenly outrageous.
For some people, perhaps, lack of awareness that the practice is routine made this particular image startling. But for some, I suspect, it is offensive because they do not think that Mr. Obama is legitimately president of the United States.You see that in the never-go-away birther nonsense. You see something of it in the repeated assertion by George Will and others that Mr. Obama uses first-person singular pronouns excessively.** You know, he's uppity. And that tone, I think, leaks into the umbrella discourse.
Now, we have had presidents of dubious legitimacy. Mr. Bush fils got into the Oval Office in part because of a narrow vote on the Supreme Court, from which Justice John Paul Stevens dissented strongly and about which former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has expressed belated reservations. But he was sworn in as president, and I accepted that, much as I disagreed with many of his subsequent policies and actions. (As a Democrat, I am also unhappy that the 1876 election was stolen from Samuel J. Tilden, but I have got over that.)
Mr. Obama became president by majority vote in two elections whose legitimacy has not been challenged, and he is entitled to the perks that we bestow to our chief magistrates. There is a good deal about his administration that does not bring a spring to my step and a song to my heart, and it would be some service to the public to focus on substantive matters rather than engage in idiotic distractions.
*He was an odd man who did disagreeable and illegal things, but we could at least have let him eat his lunch in peace.
**Mark Liberman at the University of Pennsylvania has repeatedly demolished this assertion by counting pronouns in the public statements of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and demonstrating that Mr. Obama uses first-person singular pronouns less fequently than either of them. (Arithmetic.)
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