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Honoring the Office

In the last few weeks, President Barack Obama has been assailed as never before, and there is good reason for all Americans to be concerned. Not about the name-calling, per se; name-calling, slander, outrageous characterization have been a part of American presidential politics since, well, George Washington. The much revered other tall, lanky president from Illinois was dogged by epithets that today would make a Fox News commentator blush.

Even the coarse posters likening Obama to Hitler are, sad to say, unoriginal. The same was said of our previous president, and there’s no reason that loathsome, counter-factual analogy will retire anytime soon.

There are two features of the vitriol against Obama, however, that are unique and could have serious consequences. The first is the surprisingly persistent effort to question his place of birth and therefore to de-legitimize his Americanism. This isn’t the same as arguing that George W. Bush was not a legitimate president, a charge based on interpretation of a controversial Supreme Court ruling, and one that could have easily been transferred to Al Gore if the court had sided differently. No one, to our memory, however, ever questioned whether Bush was born in this country. Indeed, before becoming president, he almost never left it. The challenges to Obama’s right to hold the office are so divorced from reality that one cannot help but wonder whether they are rooted in anything other than bigotry.

The second cause for worry is the astonishing way that Rep. Joe Wilson’s intemperate outburst during Obama’s recent address to Congress raised the South Carolina lawmaker’s stature in the eyes of some Americans. Rules are rules, and it seems to make no difference to his supporters that Wilson broke them, threatening to turn a space reserved for deliberation, for the people’s sacred business, into yet another raucous town hall meeting or cable TV show.

By de-legitimizing the current president and Congress, this sentiment may accrue some short-term political benefit. It certainly has heightened partisan passion and complicated the important work of health care reform. But in the long term, what is done to one person or party can come back to haunt another. America better tread carefully here, lest the respect for government and leadership so central to our well-being — no matter who is in charge — dissolve.

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