Commentary Magazine


The President’s Hypocrisy and Cynicism When it Comes to Civility

At a Labor Day rally yesterday, speaking before President Obama, Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa repeatedly invoked the metaphor of war, saying the Republicans and the Tea Party has declared war on workers and “there’s only going to be one winner…We’re going to win that war.” And speaking about the Tea Party, Hoffa said, “President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let’s take these sons of bitches out.”

In response, the president delivered powerful and moving remarks, saying, “Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.” The president, in a show of impressive political courage, rebuked his ally in the labor movement, saying, “Only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation.” The president then added this: “We can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and … our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.”

My apologies; I just made a sloppy mistake. President Obama didn’t say those words in response to Hoffa. Those were the words he spoke earlier this year at the memorial service for those who were killed and wounded by a madman in Tucson. And recall the context. As Jonathan noted earlier, the media, led by the New York Times, was breathlessly and recklessly promoting the story conservatives were responsible for creating a climate of rhetorical hate that created the conditions for the massacre. It didn’t matter the narrative they were advancing had nothing whatsoever to do with reality.

It turns out that the only thing Obama had to say about Hoffa yesterday was that he was “proud” of him. And I’m sure he was. What Hoffa said, of course, is fully in the spirit of the Chicago Way. (According to ABC News, the White House has so far declined to comment on Hoffa’s rhetoric.)

It’s an old story by now: the president speaks out in favor of civility in public discourse when it advances his aims and ambitions. But he’s quite comfortable with violent rhetoric when it serves his political interests and when it’s used by his political allies. There are many ways to describe the character and integrity of a man who follows such an approach — and none of them are terribly impressive or particularly honorable.