First lady Michelle Obama has shown us all how to deal with the nastiness that has infected American politics: Do not indulge it.
At a fundraiser in a private Washington residence on Tuesday night, a gay rights activist standing only a few steps away interrupted the first lady as she spoke. Michelle’s reaction was immediate. She did not try to talk over the heckler or engage the person in a debate or pass it off as a joke or wait until the rant subsided. Instead, she stepped away from the microphone, walked over to the shouting woman and said, “Listen to me or you can take the mike, but I’m leaving.” And then, to the rest of the crowd, “You all decide. You have one choice.”
The audience, of course, cheered and called for her to stay. Meanwhile, the heckler — a self-described lesbian pushing for broadened federal protections for homosexuals in the workplace — was escorted out of the building.
“One of the things I don’t do well is this,” Mrs. Obama had said when the heckling began. But the opposite is true. She handled it very well. Perhaps of necessity, her husband gives protesters more time to carry on. A president faces harsher judgment if he handles such a situation poorly. But Michelle’s way seems worth emulating. She put the heckler on the spot, confronted the woman’s rudeness and made obvious the counterproductive stupidity of her tactics.
One of the most demoralizing aspects of American civil society in our times is the way political discourse has sunk into a sewer of epithets and shouting. Hecklers at political events are the lesser offenders in this regard. Worse are the professional ranters on talk radio and cable TV who peddle anger, fear and mendacity. Worst of all are the growing number of congressmen who think lies and vilification in the defense of their version of liberty is no vice.
It is easy to sample the bullying rhetoric; simply peruse the reader comments at the end of this, or any other, political column. Respectful disagreement is a casualty of the information age. The true hallmark of our times is juvenile name-calling unworthy of even the dimmest schoolyard brat.
It was edifying to see Michelle Obama insist on something better, especially since the offending party was more or less on her side of the political divide. It would be even more gratifying if a few Republican leaders would express their disgust with the venom being spewed by their philosophical brethren. With the singular exception of Sen. John McCain, though, none have shown they have the guts to do it.
Other than McCain, the first lady is more of a man than any of them.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.