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.