In 2009, Aretha Franklin created a minor scandal with her headgear at President Obama’s inauguration. Her stunningly large hat bow—so big it nearly blocked the view of luminaries sitting in the grandstand—was all anyone could talk about for weeks afterwards. Although many criticized the bonnet as being too much for the occasion, Franklin demonstrated her respect for President Obama by essentially dressing in her Sunday best. Surely a hat that she would wear to church to worship the Almighty appropriately demonstrates respect for a new president.
This inauguration, another bold, talented African-American woman is in the hot seat. This time, Beyoncé, has been criticized for singing along to a pre-recorded rendition of our national anthem. Although at first her decision to lip-synch might smack of laziness or impertinence, her choice actually indicates her deep respect for the president—something distressingly missing inside and outside the Beltway.
When the Queen of R-E-S-P-E-C-T first heard about Beyoncé’s lip-synching, she reportedly threw her head back and laughed. Franklin said she almost wished she’d made a similar decision. Franklin wanted to perform perfectly for the president, as did Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. They, too, played along to pre-recorded music for President Obama’s first inauguration, but it didn’t become a national scandal. As Yo-Yo Ma told NY Times reporter Daniel Wakin at the time, “What we were there for was to really serve the moment.” Perlman felt similarly: “The occasion’s got to be perfect. You can’t have any slip-ups.” Last week, Beyoncé echoed these sentiments: “Due to the weather, due to the delay, due to no proper sound check, I did not feel comfortable taking a risk. It was about the president and the inauguration.” But she wasn’t afforded the same latitude as were the titans of classical music. This could be because she once performed in the unfortunately-named pop group, Destiny’s Child, but I think it’s racism. Many feel she, like the President himself, simply doesn’t belong at the inauguration at all.
As I watched the Beyoncé dust up unfold, I recalled an interview NPR’s Ari Shapiro had with a Romney supporter during the last presidential election. She’d complained vociferously about President Obama: “I just—I don’t like him. Can’t stand to look at him. I don’t like his wife. She’s far from the first lady. It’s about time we get a first lady in there who acts like a first lady and looks like a first lady.” In a subsequent interview she insisted that her comments had nothing to do with race, but there’s something about “Can’t stand to look at him” that highlights the real subtext. Like others in the American electorate, she believes African-Americans have gotten above their station.
Remember the reprehensible T-shirt that popped up at an Ohio campaign event for Romney? “Put the white back in the White House.” Remember Sarah Palin’s racially charged critique of Obama that he was “shucking and jiving” about the terrorist attack in Libya? Or the absurd, insistent chatter about President Obama’s birth certificate; South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson calling the president a liar during a joint session of Congress; and Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich’s race-tinged accusation that Obama has a “Kenyan mentality”? On this last point, even conservative Washington Post columnist George F. Will voiced his concerns that such comments are so bizarre they hurt the Republican Party. These examples merely legitimize the flood of racist tweets on Twitter following Obama’s re-election and on the occasion of his Sandy Hook memorial speech.
Last year I spied an anti-Obama bumper sticker on a car in downtown Brattleboro that whipped my head around. It read, “B.O. stinks.” The “O” incorporated the same font and design from Obama’s campaign literature. In almost the identical spot, years earlier, I’d spotted another bumper sticker: “Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing an idiot.” Although equally disrespectful to President George W. Bush, the latter avoids a racial subtext about cleanliness and hygiene.
Retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson—and chief of staff for former Secretary of State Colin Powell—said in an MSNBC interview last fall, “Let me just be candid. My party is full of racists.” Wilkerson—responding to former NH governor John Sununu’s claim that Powell only endorsed Obama because he’s African-American—argued that Sununu’s beliefs are not singular. He asserted, “The real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character…and everything to do with the color of his skin.” Wilkerson, clearly disgusted by this pernicious element of his own party, is unclear as to what exactly to do about it, but I respect him enormously for naming it. There are legitimate reasons why true fiscal conservatives would oppose Obama’s presidency; there must always be room for lively, substantive dissent. But as Wilkerson asserts, the tent of the GOP must not become a refuge for bigots.
All American presidents are demeaned and mocked by pundits, press and other politicians. It’s tricky to balance respect for the President of the United States with our nation’s abhorrence of monarchical pomp and circumstance. George Washington was initially addressed by the affected and unwieldy title: “His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties.” James Madison—the little big man dubbed the “Father of the Bill of Rights”—put an end to that. Although first Vice President, John Adams, complained that “Mr. President” was not deferential enough, the title stuck.
Sometimes I wish “his High Mightiness” were still in use. I’d love to see Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s facial contortions as she struggled to get the words out. She, who demonstrated contempt and impudence when she wagged her finger in President Obama’s face last year, would not be the only one to choke on the glorious title. But hey, if it really became a struggle for her, she could always lip-synch it.