The XX Committee

POTUS and the Latte Thing

I occasionally wade into U.S. domestic politics, usually to castigate excessive partisanship, often of a rigidly ideological cast, which I think is making Americans stupid. Customarily I get a lot of “but the other guys are the stupid ones” kind of reaction, which perhaps makes my point.

This week President Obama created a firestorm by saluting his Marine guards as he was stepping off Marine One — while holding a cup of coffee. The ensuing LatteGate has led to a very predictable two-phase reaction:

1. The Right castigates Obama for yet another example of how he supposedly despises the U.S. military.

2. In response, the Left states that Obama has suffered injustice like no president in U.S. history.

I think both responses are quite wide of the mark, but what’s more important here is we have yet another example of how deceptive partisanship is ruining political discourse in our country.

Let me state up-front that the President returning the salute that’s rendered by his military retinue is anything but a venerable tradition, in fact it dates to Ronald Reagan. No president before that — not even Eisenhower, who had five stars and more military service than any President before or since — felt it necessary to salute back. But now that salute, like the President always having an American flag lapel pin on his blazer, is one of those things that Must Be Done, lest accusations of insufficient patriotism start flying. Personally, I think it’s silly, more proof of the Imperial Presidency that I find un-American.

But if the President wants to salute back, he can: that’s his call. Asking him to do it properly, while not holding something in his right hand, is not an excessive demand, but, hey, everybody screws up once in a while. Yet when you’re POTUS the camera is on you every public moment, that’s just reality in 2014. It’s time to let this slide, Obama goofed. Let’s just ask him to get it right in the future, if he wishes to keep saluting people in uniform.

Of course, the Right could not let this outrage stand, so we’ve had several days of Official Poutrage from FoxNews and the Usual Suspects about how Obama really despises the military, and here’s more proof. Let it be said that I’m sure most Americans who’ve served in uniform winced a tad when they saw the President’s latte salute, but I feel safe in stating that not a single voter changed his or her mind about Obama on the basis of that gaffe. Minds were made up long ago, this was just more grist to certain ideological mills.

Obama has not always been his best ally on military matters, as since 2008 we’ve witnessed a few  gaffes indicating that the President isn’t overly familiar with our armed forces (my favorite was the “corpse-man” misspeak). It’s anything but surprising that Obama, who like virtually all members of the country’s educated elite today has never served in uniform, isn’t well acquainted with military protocol. After all he’s a product of elite liberal education (Punahou, Columbia, Harvard Law), and espouses the usual views of that smart set, so it’s not shocking that he knew basically nothing — and literally nothing first-hand — about the U.S. military before he became Commander-in-Chief.

That said, I see no evidence that Obama possesses any anti-military bias. He has spoken movingly as he’s bestowed the Medal of Honor several times in a manner that cannot be viewed as anything other than respectful of our fighting men and women. I don’t see much deep interest in military matters in this White House, but indifference is not the same thing as hostility.

The harsh truth is that Democrats are judged differently on military affairs because, well, they’re Democrats. Since the early 1970’s, the Right has assumed that all Democrats are anti-military, even though most of them clearly are not. Thus it was easy to paint George McGovern, a highly decorated WWII bomber pilot with a far more distinguished war record than Richard Nixon (a Navy supply corps officer in the Pacific who never was in combat), as some sort of anti-Pentagon peacenik, which he was not.

There is an element on the Right that lies in wait for “proof” of a Democrat’s anti-military bias. And Obama walked right into their sights this week. It was the same with Bill Clinton, who was assumed to be anti-military by many Americans (relatedly, I encourage anyone who thinks the Right has it uniquely in for Obama to Google “Clinton” and “Lewinsky”), and we can expect this to continue until we have a major party shift, which has happened before in this country (Google “Solid South,” for those curious).

This isn’t fair, but then life isn’t fair, as JFK sagely reminded us. And before the Left starts to feel too good about itself, it needs to be said that they have an exact analogy to the military issue, and that’s race. Just as Democrats are assumed by the Right to be anti-military, without any evidence of that, the Left assumes Republicans are racist, barring proof that they’re not.

Of course, there are Republicans who are racists, just as there are Democrats who despise the military, but both those breeds are exceptions in their tribe. And arguing that most Republicans are “really” racists, even if they don’t know it, seems depressingly like maintaining that most Democrats are “really” anti-military, even though there’s no hard evidence that’s true. Again, indifference should not taken for hostility, yet it often is for partisan purposes.

Life’s not fair, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can make a crass joke about Asians and get away with just an apology, while any Republican who did that would be run out of public life. Similarly, I have quite a few friends on the Left who remain convinced that George W. Bush was an incorrigible racist, even though I can find no evidence of that. On the contrary, Bush appointed our country’s first African American secretary of state, and his closest advisor on foreign affairs was his buddy whom he appointed our country’s first African American and female national security advisor, later making her the first African American and female secretary of state (that I think Condoleezza Rice was less than mediocre in those jobs is immaterial). Not to mention his unprecedented support for aid programs for Africa, which would seem to argue that Bush actually cared about black people, impressing even “Saint Bob” Geldof. Yet Bush made quite a few gaffes that were taken to be about race (Google “Hurricane Katrina” for starters), and for some people that was enough to prove his innate racism, which I could never detect.

It would be nice if Americans stopped assuming by default that Democrats hate the military and Republicans hate non-whites, but I’m not an optimist there, since we have lots of venues that make money off propagating these toxic myths. Of course, I find this deeply unhealthy in a democracy, so maybe this is something we can all work on together.

Let’s admit first that neither you nor I know what’s going on in other people’s heads. Maybe Barack Obama really does hate the military. Maybe George W. Bush really does hate black people. But until we can prove that, let’s just assume that they don’t. That would make the Republic a nicer and more functional place.


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