The photograph of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer pointing a finger at President Obama on the tarmac at the Phoenix airport brought out the worst in amateur psychoanalysis from our media elite. No one had an audio tape or videotape of what was said, but just the finger-pointing image somehow was definitive evidence of profound disrespect.
These same journalists were not only unfazed, but actually downright amused back in 2008, when an Iraqi journalist in Baghdad threw two shoes at President Bush’s head. That man, they said, was an “instant hero.” Over and over, they replayed the footage, each time laughing just a bit harder.
Ah, but this is Obama, and no pointing of any kind is allowed. Outrage, you hear? Outrage!
It was an outrage contest. NBC anchor Brian Williams seemed the most offended. "Who have you ever seen talking to the president like this?....The governor of Arizona with her finger in the face of the President of the United States! You don't see that often -- or maybe ever." The story that followed included angry MSNBC host Martin Bashir: "I think this is unprecedented!...I don't know of any other instance when someone has been this disrespectful to the president."
Worst ever? Unprecedented? Williams clearly doesn’t feel the need to do any research before making historical claims. He not only left out the Iraqi shoe-tosser in his historical ignorance. He left out...himself.
In 2006, Williams conducted a very hostile interview with President Bush, in which one could isolate a screen image of Williams pointing an accusatory finger at Bush. Believe it or not, after slapping Bush around about whether he was too “patrician” to understand his mishandling of the response to Hurricane Katrina, Williams was pestering (or mocking) Bush for reading the French philosopher Albert Camus.
Williams clearly couldn’t believe Bush had the brain power to tackle it, and pointed his finger as he challenged Bush to explain how he was misunderstood. He then threw at him “Still not watchin’ television, huh?” “I watch a good baseball game,” Bush snapped back.
Disrespect was the name of Brian’s game.
On CBS, anchorman Scott Pelley brought in Bob Schieffer to compete with Williams in the Obama-lover outrage. He told Schieffer “it seems like it’s not a Democratic or Republican issue but a question of how the office of the President is treated.” Schieffer complained, “this is just another sign of the growing incivility and really vulgarity of our modern American politics in campaigns.” He, too, had complete amnesia. “I can never recall a President stepping off Air Force One, which is itself a symbol of the presidency in American democracy, and being subjected to such public rudeness. I think really we’re a better people than this little incident illustrates.”
So let’s look at CBS at the end of 2008, only about three years ago. Reporter Elizabeth Palmer quoted Munthazar al-Zaidi’s shoe-tossing words at Bush – “This is your goodbye kiss, you dog!” She added that “By showing the kind of contempt formerly reserved for Saddam Hussein to President Bush, al-Zaidi's become an instant hero.” Palmer snidely concluded "al-Zaidi should do jail time, said the Iraqi bloggers, because he missed." Then-anchor Katie Couric failed to muster any outrage at the disrespect, even if, as Pelley claimed, “it’s not a Democratic or Republican issue but a question of how the President is treated.”
In The New York Times, reporter Helene Cooper found potential political gain for Obama after the Brewer conflict. “Hispanic leaders said that what is being dubbed by some as the ‘dustup in the desert’ could play in the president’s favor given the unfavorable view many Hispanics have of the governor for her advocacy of tough immigration measures.”
By contrast, the Times asserted the Bush shoe-tossing in 2008 only underlined how dramatically unpopular Bush was in the Middle East for all the mayhem he imposed. “The Iraqi who threw both of his at President Bush, with widely admired aim, were embraced around the Arab world on Monday as symbols of rage at a still unpopular war,” wrote Times reporters Timothy Williams and Abeer Mohammed at the time. They found the “instantly mythic moment” had “provided a rare moment of unity in a region often at odds with itself.”
Liberal journalists can insult a governor for challenging Obama, even after they enthusiastically channeled praise for shoe-throwing at Bush’s head. What they can’t plausibly do is claim that they have a firm grip on historical facts, or any shred of a record of nonpartisan respect for presidents.