Graciousness

Never marry into an important family of high achievers – the work of being gracious will kill you. Back in the eighties it was the late afternoon chit-chat at the Pentagon, a room full of political biggies and old men in precise uniforms with a square yard of medals on their chests. What kind of small talk do you make with a Rear Admiral? How’s the fleet? And what do you say to the short and nasty Secretary of Defense at the time – nice tie, Frank? The formal parities were worse of course. What is the appropriate small talk at the annual Christmas party at the National Institute of Health? What are you up to these days? You don’t want to know the answer. At least Doctor Koop was a mensch – we chatted about pipes. He did smoke one now and them. Still, as a rule, it’s best to smile and nod, and thus be considered a pleasant dolt. Only military brats – and military wives too – master the art of being sufficiently charming and seeming to be engaged and insightful. It’s a matter of saying essentially nothing at all, or saying what is obviously expected, but saying it so nicely, and with real enthusiasm. This takes years of practice.

For civilians there’s only despair. The troubled narrator of Walker Percy’s 1981 novel, The Moviegoer, put it best:

For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead. It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can.

When no one is really saying anything, and dare not say anything to offend or even just surprise the other, you do have death of a sort. Zombies mouth bland words and smile at each other. You do want to slip away, but then some things must be done, for the sake of community, so we all can get along and not rip each other’s throats out. Everyone makes small talk. Everyone attempts graciousness, no matter how they feel. That’s what makes civilization possible. The troubled narrator of Walker Percy’s novel just never got the hang of it. He had odd and ironic notions about the supreme value of authenticity, and as a result, or by choice, he lived alone.

That’s not an option for most of us. We have graciousness forced upon us, no matter how awkward our participation feels. Being gracious is the right thing to do, so at the end of college basketball games the teams form opposing lines and pass each other, each player shuffling along and briefly shaking hands with each guy on the other team. Yes, they all look at the floor and only briefly brush hands – after all, someone won and really wants to gloat, and someone lost and is pretty pissed off – but this is what’s done. After football games the two opposing coaches always meet at midfield and shake hands and exchange a few words too – but by now the sports networks know better than to shove a microphone in there. It’s best not to shatter the illusion of civilized behavior. That’s kind of a joke. Anyone can read the body language. These two really have no use for each other.

That’s probably why there will be no cameras or microphones – no press at all and not even an associated photo-op – for this event:

President Obama and his defeated Republican foe, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, will have lunch Thursday in the private dining room at the White House, a show of bipartisan comity three weeks after the conclusion of a tough and often nasty election campaign. The meeting, their first since the final presidential debate Oct. 22 in Florida, comes amid increasingly antagonistic negotiations between the White House and Congress to avert the “fiscal cliff” of automatic spending cuts and tax increases.

The mood is poisonous in Washington, and there’s no small talk – just nasty accusations and sneers flying back and forth. Think of the sullen basketball players after the game, forced to sort of maybe kind of shake hands. Still, this is the sort of thing that must be done, and Romney will play along:

A Romney aide called the lunch a gracious invitation from the president that the former GOP presidential challenger was glad to accept. Romney also plans to meet with his former running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), while in Washington on Thursday.

Obama first said during his election victory speech in Chicago that he intended to invite Romney to meet with him, then reiterated the idea during a White House news conference Nov. 14.

“He presented some ideas during the course of the campaign that I actually agree with,” Obama said during the news conference, adding later, “There are a lot of ideas that I don’t think are partisan ideas but are just smart ideas about how can we make the federal government more customer-friendly.”

Obama didn’t specify which Romney ideas he actually agrees with. Obama was saying what is obviously expected, but saying it so nicely, and with real enthusiasm. A reporter asked Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, if there was any way this meant Romney would be offered a position in the Obama administration. Carney just grinned. Nope. This lunch was for small talk, very small talk – and it’s just what’s done, to illustrate the peaceful transfer of power or some such thing. This was symbolic.

The odd thing is that this is also fairly new:

The modern tradition of post-election meetings between presidential rivals began in 1960, when John F. Kennedy visited Richard M. Nixon at his home in Key Biscayne, Fla., according to historian Michael Beschloss. Kennedy’s victory was so narrow that some feared it would be disputed.

“The first thing Kennedy said was, ‘Neither of us knows who won, do we?’ ” Beschloss said. “He said it with a purpose to see how Nixon would react.” When Nixon acknowledged losing, Beschloss said, “Kennedy breathed an inward sigh of relief.”

That’s not the case this time. There’s no dispute over who won and how, so there’s no tricky awkward stuff here. Lyndon Johnson did not meet with Barry Goldwater back in 1964 – anyone who was around at the time knew each considered the other a total asshole. There was no reason to meet. Nixon resumed the practice after he beat Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and Humphrey turned down an offer to be Nixon’s ambassador to the United Nations. Nixon must have known he was on shaky ground in those turbulent years, or maybe he really wasn’t the paranoid jerk everyone remembers – or maybe that came later. Still, there was a reason to meet.

Obama met with John McCain in Chicago just after winning in 2008 – yes, a private meeting, but photographers and a pool reporter were given a few minutes with them. That was safe, as it was clear Obama had a lot of respect for John McCain, the war hero who had endured years of torture as a prisoner of war, who, back then, had bucked his party a few times to do the right thing, and who was honorable and honest and even had a sense of humor. Obama seemed to like the guy, and in turn, McCain had famously told that befuddled woman at one of the endless McCain campaign rallies that no, Obama wasn’t an Arab, just a good family man with whom he had differences on major issues. They probably got along just fine. They could talk.

This might not be the case with Obama and Romney. At the debates they seemed distant. There seemed to be hostility in the air, or at least the body language showed neither had much respect for the other. This will be an awkward lunch, best kept private, even if it’s a good idea:

“I think it’s very important as campaigns are getting more and more bitter,” Beschloss said of the tradition. “Maybe it’s less important when it’s not as close an election as 1960 or ’68, but it’s still an election that was deeply felt on both sides.”

Agreed – it’s best not to shatter the illusion of civilized behavior. Sometimes the illusion of mutual respect is all that keeps us from chaos. Parents do tell their children to play nice, instinctively knowing that might keep them alive.

Matters were not helped, however, when Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s chief campaign strategist, published an opinion piece in the Washington Post – Mitt Romney: A Good Man. The Right Fight – explaining that Romney won the vote that really mattered, the vote of those who make at least fifty thousand a year:

On Nov. 6, Romney carried the majority of every economic group except those with less than $50,000 a year in household income. That means he carried the majority of middle-class voters. While John McCain lost white voters younger than 30 by 10 points, Romney won those voters by seven points, a 17-point shift. Obama received 4½ million fewer voters in 2012 than 2008, and Romney got more votes than McCain.

Of course there are many who earn near fifty grand, or less, who consider themselves middle class – but no matter. This was the same old forty-seven-percent crap. Stevens was writing off a whole lot of people, the very people who put Obama back in the White House. Stevens seemed to be gloating that Romney got the vote of those who really mattered. No one else did.

Rich Abdill at Wonkette has more:

Yes, yes: Romney did so well! He got a majority among people who have a bunch of money, which was his only market, so good for him. We still do not have to pay attention to those pesky lower-middle-class households; they’re unreachable. Ditto 96 percent of blacks.

Stevens also says this:

Over the years, one of the more troubling characteristics of the Democratic Party and the left in general has been a shortage of loyalty and an abundance of self-loathing. It would be a shame if we Republicans took a narrow presidential loss as a signal that those are traits we should emulate.

Abdill:

Is anyone else already confused? “The Democrats are awful and stupid. Just because they won doesn’t mean we should become awful and stupid too.” Thanks for the… strategy?

Stevens:

I appreciate that Mitt Romney was never a favorite of D.C.’s Green Room crowd or, frankly, of many politicians. That’s why, a year ago, so few of those people thought he would win the nomination… Nobody liked Romney except voters.

Abdill:

Ah, yes. The voters loved Romney, so long as you only count the ones with appropriately sized 401(k)’s.

Stevens:

He bested the competition in debates, and though he was behind almost every candidate in the primary at one time or the other, he won the nomination and came very close to winning the presidency.

Abdill:

Have we so quickly forgotten primary season? Romney won because he was less stupid than Perry and Bachmann and more superstitious than Huntsman. Romney became the nominee the same way Ramen noodles become dinner: There’s nothing else around, and you have to pick something. And the Hot Pockets believe in evolution.

Stevens:

Romney trounced Barack Obama in debate. He defended the free-enterprise system and, more than any figure in recent history, drew attention to the moral case for free enterprise and conservative economics.

Abdill:

FINALLY somebody reminds us of Romney’s pristine “moral case.” You know – that deep morality that says to poor folks “Oh, you’re sick? Go to the emergency room.” The moral case that says the 47 percent of the country receiving government benefits are only doing it because they won’t take responsibility for themselves and just get rich already. The moral case that says yeah, of course those rich people should have lower tax rates. That’s the fair thing, they’ll spend it better.

That Romney, he’s so full of moral cases! Why couldn’t the stupid poors love them more?

Stevens:

Losing is just losing. It’s not a mandate to throw out every idea that the candidate championed, and I would hope it’s not seen as an excuse to show disrespect for a good man who fought hard for values we admire.

Abdill:

We shouldn’t throw out every idea Romney championed? Romney threw out every idea Romney championed. He went from banning assault weapons to saying he would veto all gun control legislation ever. He went from wanting gays to be able to serve openly in the military to being all like, “We are warring, gays are gross.” He went from resolutely pro-choice to wanting to burn Roe v. Wade at the stake and hang Harry Blackmun in effigy. Do we have to keep going? The only thing Romney championed was Romney.

This goes on for quite a bit more, but the key Stevens quote is this:

There was a time not so long ago when the problems of the Democratic Party revolved around being too liberal and too dependent on minorities. Obama turned those problems into advantages and rode that strategy to victory.

That requires the obvious response:

What a cheater! Obama’s dirty strategy was “appeal to minorities.” Next thing you know he’ll be saying everyone should be EQUAL. …

Nobody has ever suggested before, ever, that maybe Obama was actually HORRIBLE, but nobody wanted to say anything, because of blackness. This is also why Romney lost. Blast!

The Stevens column was ill-advised. It’s often best to smile and nod and say nothing, and thus be considered a pleasant dolt. It sure beats coming off as an arrogant rich guy and a racist too, and BooMan offers this:

After eight years of having a black family in the White House, there has been some reshuffling of the two parties’ brands. The GOP is whiter than ever and the Democratic Party is more identified with the changing demographics of the country. Both changes are alienating people and growing the polarization between the parties. It may be that a 2016 campaign by Hillary Clinton will discover that Arkansas doesn’t love her family anymore, and that West Virginia and Missouri are not going to come back into the fold. On the other hand, it could be that Obama’s race is disguising the true weakness of the Republican Party. It could be that a 2016 Democratic candidate who is seen as a sound bet to continue Obama’s policies and solidify his legacy will have no trouble holding onto his coalition, but that candidate will also find a much bigger pool of white working class voters willing to give their candidacy a look. Honestly, I suspect that the GOP is only hanging on as well as it is by fueling itself on the fumes of racial fear and resentment.

If the illusion of mutual respect is sometimes all that keeps us from chaos, then one party, by not even attempting the illusion,  is pushing us into chaos.

There were other inadvertent responses to the Stevens column, people just talking about why they voted for the other guy, like the series of emails collected by Josh Marshall at Talking Point Memo, including this one:

I am sure that many people (like me) took the insults and disrespectful behavior towards President Obama in a very personal way. Many of us have experienced racism from “non-racists” all too frequently.

As an Asian-American, the questioning of Obama’s American-ness really strikes a raw nerve. (This is perhaps the one experience that unites Asian-Americans – being treated as a foreigner in our homeland). I see in Barack Obama a smart man who worked hard to get an education and to achieve a better life, only to be questioned about his credentials and his authenticity. I identify with that. So do many other people.

The Republican attacks on Obama reminded many people of their own personal experiences with sexism and racism. Too bad (or maybe it was for the better) that the Republicans living in their bubble of whiteness couldn’t see that.

There’s a reason Romney lost the Asian vote, and consider this:

I think there is one point to remember when Republicans keep saying that they are so surprised that core groups in the Obama electoral coalition, like African Americans, young voters, etc., were able to match or even exceed their 2008 turnout: Republicans did some pretty unbelievable, disrespectful and frankly unconscionable things to this President… shouting “You Lie!” to him during the middle of his State of the Union address (something that was frankly never contemplated to be done to Clinton or Bush, despite rapid opposition), challenging his birthplace and religion, or Governor Brewer pointing her finger in his face on the tarmac, much of which was repeated nightly on places like Fox News.

Regardless of whether these things were done because of the President’s race (and I think that a pretty convincing argument could be made that a lot of what happened was at least partially due to his race), the fact of the matter is that Republicans who engaged in this type of behavior honestly shouldn’t be surprised now that there was some consequence to their actions, and by this I mean that the President’s supporters, who felt and understood this disrespect, would be extra-motivated to support him in response to these antics.

I’m not sure Republicans realize or understand this, but it seems pretty clear that people who admire and look up to this President, particularly those who share the same race as him, were not going to take this disrespect lying down. The lesson here may be is that there is always some consequence for actions in politics; it may not be readily apparent immediately, but there was always going to be a price to be paid for indulging and encouraging the most outrageous and irresponsible voices on the right. It just wasn’t until Election Day that it was clear how dear a price that was.

And there’s this:

Sure, some candidates are better than others but Romney was by far not the worst candidate the GOP has ever put up. In fact, he was not the worst to run against Obama, if you get my drift. (Hint: he didn’t choose Sarah Palin as his running mate.)

To me this says a great deal more about the GOP than about Romney. If you think a guy like this is so bad, don’t nominate him. Don’t spend a BILLION DOLLARS trying to get him elected then a week later say…’Oops, we goofed. He was a mistake.’

The Republican Party has a problem, but it is not one candidate; it is not packaging or branding; it is not messaging that is sinking the GOP. It is the core beliefs of the vast majority of Republicans.

Their problem is their war on women; war on gays; war on minorities. It is their war on science and math and logic and education and reality. It is listening to knuckleheads like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, Ann Coulter and Donald Trump. It is allowing entertainers to determine the direction and policy positions of a major political party. It is following the teaching of extremist religions leaders like the US Catholic Bishops.

But most of all, it is the GOP’s utter lack of respect for anyone who is not like them…

There are five or six more like these. The Romney guys didn’t even try for even the mere illusion of mutual respect, the illusion that keeps us from chaos – and voters didn’t like that.

And that brings us back to that odd completely private lunch – Barack and Mitt sitting across the table with absolutely nothing to say to each other. That will be awkward. Obama will be gracious and not mention that he actually won the election. Mitt will be pleasant and talk about the grandkids. Yes, beyond a doubt this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can. Been there. Done that.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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