Jan Brewer vs. Obama: Can you respect the presidency but insult the president?

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wagged her finger at President Obama. NHL player Tim Thomas boycotted a White House ceremony. Is the country 'losing basic courtesy and grace'?

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Barack Obama speaks at a UPS facility in Las Vegas, Nevada, Thursday January 26, 2012. Obama used the event to talk about American energy and liquefied natural gas.

It was the finger wag seen ‘round the world. Or at least arcing across the blogosphere.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer seeming to lecture President Obama on the tarmac. Mr. Obama pivoting away from Ms. Brewer, apparently before she’d had her full say on immigration.

“It looks like she’s giving him the business,” said Doug Luzader of Fox News.

Immediately the question became: Was Brewer showing disrespect for the presidency, or merely engaging in brief spirited debate with a fellow politician over one of the hottest issues in an election year?

IN PICTURES: Race in America

“With all due respect” has been a cliché forever, usually uttered just before the rhetorical knife gets inserted.

Like the other night when Herman Cain (remember him?) was giving the “tea party response” to Obama’s State of the Union speech.

“With all due respect, Mr. President, some of us aren’t stupid,” Mr. Cain said, finishing the sentence with a phrase that could be considered insulting.

“Politics ain’t beanbag,” humorist Finley Peter Dunne’s fictional Mr. Dooley said back during the early 20th century, and from ridicule to assassination, presidents always have been the brunt of attack.

Abe Lincoln was portrayed in cartoons of the day as ape-like – long before Barack Obama got the same treatment at some early tea party rallies. George W. Bush’s image frequently mirrored the all-ears “What, me worry?” kid on the cover of Mad magazine.

But Obama – the nation’s first African American president – seems to have endured more of that.

Three years after his election, he’s still battered by “birthers” challenging the legitimacy of his presidency – most recently in Georgia, where Republican state lawmakers this week are trying to have him removed from the state’s March 6 primary election ballot based on the charge that he is not a natural born US citizen.

There may have been raucous responses to presidential addresses to Congress in the past, but it was Obama who had to hear Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina shout “You lie!” in 2009 as the president spoke about health care. (Wilson later apologized, sort of.)

This week, Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas refused to attend a White House event honoring the Stanley Cup champions, a nonpolitical event if ever there was one. Tea partyer Thomas cited a government that is “threatening the rights, liberties, and property of the people.”

Thomas’s decision may not have been personal; he says “both parties are responsible for the situation we are in.”

Although some commentators defended his action as reflecting freedom of political opinion, it was widely seen as a snub to Obama – perhaps to the presidency, since the White House ceremony for the professional hockey champions represents national recognition by and for sports fans of all political stripes.

“He’s a phenomenal hockey player and he’s entitled to his views, but it just feels to me like we’re losing in this country basic courtesy and grace,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (a Democrat) said this week.

“I didn’t think much of President Bush’s policies – two wars on a credit card, prescription drug benefit that we couldn’t afford, deficit out of control – but I always referred to him as ‘Mr. President.’ I stood when he came in the room,” Patrick said on WTKK-FM.

Back during the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Sen. John McCain had heard some of his rally supporters shout that Obama was a “terrorist” and a “liar.” When someone shouted “kill him,” McCain felt the need to respond, and so did the Secret Service.

"We want to fight, and I will fight, but we will be respectful,” McCain said at the time. “I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments and I will respect him. I want everyone to be respectful and let's make sure we are, because that is the way that politics should be conducted in America.”

Perhaps so, but that hasn’t happened so far. Attack ads by “super PACs” that can distance themselves from the candidate they support – a relatively new phenomenon since the US Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision – are just one indicator of today’s political atmosphere.

"I grew up hearing that you treat the office with respect, and people aren't buying that anymore," Cassandra Dahnke, co-founder of the Institute for Civility in Politics in Houston, told NPR.

"It seems like that practice of disrespect is growing and growing and growing," Dahnke said. "It's eating away at the boundaries which say, you go this far and no further."

IN PICTURES: Race in America

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