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The times we live in

Justice SystemH.L. MenckenJay CarneyKamala D. Harris

The president of the United States, being a gentleman and a man, paid a compliment to California's attorney general -- Kamala Harris -- when both of them appeared at a Democratic fundraiser in that state. Indeed, he paid her several compliments when he addressed the crowd.

"You have to be careful," he began, "to first of all say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you'd want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake." That's when the president got into trouble. For he added this salute: "She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country."

Uh-oh. Not done. Not now. Not anymore and not in the presence of those who take offense at the drop of a compliment paid to the opposite sex. Not only is chivalry dead, but those guilty of committing it are expected to apologize for it. Which the president promptly did. That was the word from his press secretary, Jay Carney, the next day:

"The president did speak with Attorney General Harris last night after he came back from his trip," Mr. Carney told a press briefing the next morning. "He called her to apologize for the distraction created by his comments."

Now we have a president who can't even apologize -- needlessly -- without shifting the blame elsewhere. In this case, from his own comment to the "distraction" it created. This is not being gracious, it's being shifty. Why not just say "I'm sorry," and have done with it? If he must say anything at all.

There was a better time when a gentleman made a point of complimenting a lady on her appearance. And the plainer the lady, the more incumbent on him to do so. The late great H.L. Mencken, aka the Sage of Baltimore, was Southerner enough to request that the gesture be made in his memory: "If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."

A wink scarcely counts as a courtesy -- besides being vulgar, it can be so easily misconstrued -- but Mr. Mencken's intentions were honorable enough. What a pity that in this charmless age his request would be considered gauche. And sure to attract the attention of the Language Police, who are always on the prowl for any sign of political incorrectness. ("Turn yourself in to the nearest chapter of NOW, Mr. President. The charge is sexism in the first degree.")

Gallantry, once considered incumbent on a gentleman, is not just a dying art, but may have died. Date of death, circa 1963. Attending physician, Betty Friedan, the well-heeled housewife and freelancer who published "The Feminine Mystique" that year and struck it richer. By now even using the word "feminine" as a compliment instead of a diagnosis can get a man in trouble, like doffing his hat for a lady. If gentlemen even wear hats any more.

. . .

Try holding the door open for a lady with a chivalrous nod, and the response anywhere outside the South might be a suspicious or at least amused look. ("How quaint.") And even in these blessed latitudes, at least in more urban locales, that custom may be fading. Maybe the trouble started when we lost the distinction between lady and woman, gentleman and man.

. . .

Now the president of the United States has let himself be bullied into an apology for daring to extend the kind of compliment that once upon a time would have been considered a gracious gesture. It still should be.

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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