Washington Babylon — May 23, 2008, 11:19 am

The Case for Political Rudeness

Mark Slouka has a terrific piece in the June issue of the magazine that convincingly argues against political politeness. “In the long term, it is [the] tilt toward deference, this willingness to hold our tongues and sit on our principles, that truly threatens us, even more than the manifold abuses of this administration, because it makes them possible,” he writes.

Slouka recalls the case of former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous appearance at the U.N. Security Council on the eve of the Iraq invasion, when he made the administration’s case for war even though he knew it to be a crock of shit. Terribly polite of him.

Recall, too, how the press corps politely rolled over after Powell’s magnificent, lying performance. “The evidence he presented to the United Nations—some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail—had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool—or, possibly, a Frenchman—could conclude otherwise,” wrote (if we’re going to be rude) the astonishing asshole Richard Cohen of the Washington Post. (“As a class, they [the Washington press corps] honor politeness over honesty and believe that being ‘balanced means giving the same weight to a lie as you give to the truth,” I wrote once, in another context.)

Slouka also notes how at a White House reception a few years back

President George Bush asked Senator-elect Jim Webb how things were going for his son, a Marine serving in Iraq. “I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President,” Webb replied. “I didn’t ask you that,” the president shot back. “I asked you how your boy was doing.”

…“I’m surprised and offended by Jim Webb,” declared Stephen Hess, a professor at George Washington University, in a New York Times article entitled “A Breach of Manners Sets a Tough Town Atwitter.” Admitting that the president had perhaps been “a little snippy,” Professor Hess went on to extol the democratic virtues of decorum and protocol…

But it was left to Kate Zernike, the author of the Times article, to place the cherry atop this shameful confection in the form of a seemingly offhand parenthetical: “(On criticizing the president in his own house, Ms. Baldrige quotes the French: ça ne se fait pas—‘it is not done.’)” To which one might reply, in the parlance of my native town: Why the fuck not? Répétez après moi: It ain’t the man’s house. We’re letting him borrow it for a time.

After reading Slouka’s piece, I thought of a couple of other wonderful examples of Washington’s stilted decorum. First, was Stephen Colbert’s appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, mentioned here the other day. “Colbert was not just a failure as a comedian but rude,” the horrific Richard Cohen wrote afterwards. “Rudeness means taking advantage of the other person’s sense of decorum or tradition or civility that keeps that other person from striking back or, worse, rising in a huff and leaving. The other night, that person was George W. Bush.”

Example two was one of the most unintentionally funny articles I’ve ever read (unfortunately not available online), “Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner,” subtitled “The Decline of the Washington Social Scene May Actually Be Bad for the Country,” a 1996 piece in the Post by Sally Quinn, wife of Ben Bradlee. Wrote Quinn:

The Washington hostess, the key figure in that social scene, has vanished, the embassies are dead, presidents have been elected who have abdicated the role of social leaders and the city has lost its social axis, propelling its disparate groups apart and creating a vacuum. There is a kind of “Road Warrior” quality (from the Mel Gibson movie, which takes place after a nuclear holocaust) to Washington social life: Whoever shows up on a motorcycle is going to be the leader.

How insightful.

Share
Single Page

More from Ken Silverstein:

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Postcard October 16, 2013, 8:00 am

The Most Cajun Place on Earth

A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits 

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2014

Cassandra Among the
Creeps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

PBS Self-Destructs

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Monkey Did It

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
"In mid-August, hundreds of displaced Christians who had fled to Erbil were moved by Kurdish authorities into the concrete shell of a half-built mall. "
Photograph by Sebastian Meyer
Article
“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Iraq has every disease there is; its mind is deranged with too many voices, its organs corrupted, its limbs only long enough to tear at its own body.”
Photograph by Benjamin Busch
Post
Flying Blind·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“President Obama’s war against the Islamic State will represent, by a rough count, the eighth time the U.S. air-power lobby has promised to crush a foe without setting boot or foot on the ground.”
Article
The Monkey Did It·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Murakami’s fiction, what presents itself as a key reveals itself simultaneously to be a keyhole.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
PBS Self-Destructs·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The present state of PBS, the result of built-in deficiencies and ideological conflicts, was almost an inevitability.”
Illustration by Thomas Allen

Estimated percentage of U.S. gasoline consumption that occurs during traffic jams:

4

In India, 1.8 million female children were estimated to have died between 1985 and 2005 as an indirect result of domestic violence against their mothers; the boys of abused mothers were not at increased risk of death.

Vanilla latte and lemon pound cake continued to be the best-selling items at the Starbucks at CIA headquarters, where baristas do not write customers’ names on their cups.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today