Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Painting the White House red

It’s not that it’d be a likely scenario, but I’ve often speculated about what I would do if I were in a position to be shaking hands with King George. Would I just quietly show him a steely stare, my hands staying at my side? Would I take the more aggressive approach and risk arrest by spitting on his hand? Would I give him the finger instead of my hand? That might be satisfying, and I’d probably retain my freedom. Or... would I accede to the protocol, shake his hand, wash well afterward, and regret it ever after?

I’m thinking I’d most likely go with the stare. But, you know, I’m not sure, and it would have to depend upon the situation. Being at a political rally would be different from being given an award.

And, as I say, it’s not likely to come up for me.

It did come up for musician Leon Fleisher, who recently was given a Kennedy Center Honor. Mr Fleisher had to choose whether to quietly attend a White House reception, “required” as a part of the festivities.

The event, a deeply moving and gratifying tribute to the performing arts and artists in America, was broadcast to our nation. But what you couldn’t see in that broadcast was how conflicted I felt about being there.

Let me be frank: I was flattered to be included in so distinguished a group and to be recognized for whatever contributions I may have made to American life. I was pleased to be part of an event that raises money for an institution as vital as the Kennedy Center and to be with my family and to see their joy at the ceremony.

What made me unhappy and continues to trouble me was that I was required to attend a White House reception on the afternoon of the gala. I cannot speak for the other honorees, but while I profoundly respect the presidency, I am horrified by many of President Bush’s policies.

In the past seven years, Bush administration policies have amounted to a systematic shredding of our nation’s Constitution — the illegal war it initiated and perpetuates; the torturing of prisoners; the espousing of “values” that include a careful defense of the “rights” of embryos but show a profligate disregard for the lives of flesh-and-blood human beings; and the flagrant dismantling of environmental protections. These, among many other depressing policies, have left us weak and shamed at home and in the world.

In the end, Mr Fleisher did attend, wearing symbols of protest. I’m not sure I’d have made the same choice. I think I’d have stayed away, and made a public statement of why. There is the issue of the effect that such action has on the award itself and on the other recipients. Still, I think that those will survive it, that such action won’t diminish the honour given to the others, and that it’d be the only choice consistent with my principles.

That isn’t meant to be critical of Mr Fleisher — his choice is valid, and I respect it. And it is a difficult and public decision. I’m glad he wrote about it afterward.

What would you do?


[Thanks to Lisa Simeone for the pointer.]


Ray said...

I've often pondered what I would do, and have concluded that I would (I hope!) simply turn my back to the man. Of course, being an alien, it is highly unlikely I would ever get such an opportunity, but it's nice to dream.

Anonymous said...

I would shake his hand, of course. For whilst I disagree vehemently with much of what he stands for, that's no excuse to be rude.


Paul said...

I think this vehement extremism is a part of the problem America is facing today. There are no more moderates (or else they are simply too apathetic to speak up). Everything is black and white. Just as the right wingers are wrong to call Democrats traitors, it is also wrong to show public disrespect to the office of the President of the United States at an official function. Spit in his hand! Shame on you for even thinking it. You either stay away completely, or you attend and observe all the proper and polite protocols. But to show up to receive a public honour from the office, and to show public disrespect while accepting the accolades...? Think about it. "...Mr. Fleisher did attend, wearing symbols of protest..." Shame on him.

Maggie said...

Hmmm. Would you have shaken Saddam Hussein's hand? I wouldn't shake the hand of a brutal dictator. President Bush is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. Where do you draw the line in the name of being "polite"? I think there are more important things than being polite. When people break social rules, it isn't generally easy for them. That's what makes the protest so meaningful. Unfortunately, after a few protests like that, you get people who feel they need to express their feelings over insignificant matters in a meaningful way, and that diminishes all protest, IMO.

If this were simply a person with whom I disagree politically, I could easily shake his or her hand, or even be friends. I have plenty of friends who have different religious and political views. But that is not the case with President Bush. He should be tried for crimes against humanity. I couldn't shake his hand.

Paul said...

Would I have shaken Saddam Hussein's hand? Were I an Iraqi citizen, the question might actually be relevant. We're talking about an American citizen being offered an honour by the highest office of his government. If he had a problem with Bush, he should have turned down the accolades, and refused to attend.

Let me ask you a question. If you came across a panhandler on the street, and with one hand he was holding out his hat, and with the other he was giving you the finger, how likely would you be to drop a dollar?

Barry Leiba said...

For Mr Fleisher's situation it's not as simple as saying "I'll turn down an award from Bush," because it's not that. The Kennedy Center Honors come from an organization that does them, and not from the government. It's just that the whole setup includes a White House reception, and the president hangs the ribbon on you there.

So one can say, "I won't take the award because it includes a handshake with the president," but that seems silly to me. Or one can say, "I'll take the award as long as I can opt out of the White House bit, which is what Mr Fleisher contemplated. But apparently that's "not done," and so where does that leave one?

Anyway, I have more to say about the comments in today's post:

(Too bad Blogger won't allow links in the comments.)

Maggie said...


Aren't you Canadian? Why are you qualified to tell Americans that they should shake their president's hand, but you can't form an opinion about whether or not you'd shake Saddam Hussein's hand? Shame on you for your cheap, cowardly and hypocritical out.

Maybe Canadians like to bend over, American culture isn't like that. When our president gives us the finger, we don't want to shake his hand. Panhandlers probably aren't raised with a silver spoon in their mouth, I can more easily accept a finger from them. And a dollar is a lot less than our president has taken away from us.

I don't agree that you follow a protocol to show respect for an office. I agree with Barry -- you show respect for people. And everybody gets my respect until they lose it.


Barry Leiba said...

Hm. For what it's worth, I don't think that Paul's being Canadian should affect whether his opinion of how we should treat our president is valid.

I do find it odd, though, Paul, that there's any relevance to our citizenship at all: Why should it only be Iraqi citizens who'd be expected to show respect to their (former) president? I should think that if I disrespected Stephen Harper, you'd be as upset (or not) about that as if a Canadian did it.

I should think that if a person (or an office, or whatever) deserves respect, he/she/it deserves respect from everyone, regardless of citizenship... and that the only excuse for rudeness would be that it's accidental, due to cultural misunderstandings.

Julietta said...

What would I have done? Well before I address that, can I just ask: Brian Wilson? BRIAN WILSON was one of the honorees???? Are you kidding? "Wouldn't it be nice if
we were older and we didn't have to wait so long? Wouldn't it be nice to live together in the kind of world where we belooooooong....?" Am I missing something? Am I a cultural übersnob?

Anyway, I would have done exactly what Leon Fleisher did. I might even have said, as I held his hand between both of mine so The Shrub couldn't pull away, "Thank
you Mr. President, although I have to tell you that most of your policies truly appall me and I do not support you or your administration." While it is important to be respectful of the Office of the President, we are also guaranteed free speech in this country. (Even though you may recall that Dubya BANNED the
protesters from his campaign route in Texas, put them behind a fence in a little concentration camp area where they would not be seen or heard by the press; do y'all remember that?!) Freedom of speech my arse.

So, a peace symbol and a purple ribbon are subtle and yet powerful statements.

Spitting? No. Staring? No. Staying home (and missing a press opp)? Maybe, but no. It kinda pisses me off that the "powers that be" said Fleisher had to be there. I wonder what Diana Ross, Steve Martin, Martin Scorcese, and of course, Brian Wilson, did. Does anyone know? They don't any of them strike me as Shrub fans.

Maggie said...


I probably wasn't clear -- I rewrote the message a few times. (I know, and that's what I ended up with? LOL.) That's pretty much what I meant -- why (from Paul's point of view) is he qualified to tell us how to treat our president (and he's Canadian), but he can't say whether he would shake Saddam Hussein's hand (because he's Canadian)? I'm guessing he wouldn't, and that was his cowardly way out of answering the question. But we'll never know unless he answers. And if he wouldn't, then the question becomes, when do we stop respecting the office and start considering the war criminal who holds it? And I'm already at that point with Bush -- was as soon as he started the war in Afghanistan.

Spitting is assault and I wouldn't spit on somebody unless it was extreme circumstances. I haven't been in extreme circumstances, but I don't think it's my style. I think I would say, "I won't shake your hand, sir," and he would probably shrug and walk away. The real world doesn't penetrate that little imaginary world he inhabits. I don't even think a little saliva would get through.