Saturday, July 12, 2008

Respecting the presidency, not discouraging dissent

(Originally published 7/12/08)

With the War in Iraq now into its sixth year, a struggling economy and a growing sentiment among Americans that their government just doesn’t get it, it’s a good time to explore political protest.

Hence, last week’s guest columns about whether Americans should “support” President Bush.

The answer is subjective and based on each person’s individual values. As Americans, we have not only the right to question our leaders, but the freedom to support or oppose them based on their answers.

So the question should really be whether Americans should respect him, regardless of whether they support him. And even then, it’s really two questions.

There’s President Bush, the man, who is responsible for the decisions and policies central to his administration. Think what you will of him based on his record. But the president is not the presidency.

The presidency, the office itself, was carefully crafted by the Framers, who provided a system of checks and balances to ensure that despotism – even benevolent despotism – would not develop in the new country called the United States of America.

The presidency is an institution that has survived 43 presidents over 219 years. And it will outlast the presidency of George W. Bush.

Matthew Goodwin wrote last week, “The most patriotic thing to do is to be engaged and voice your opinion; the unpatriotic thing to do is to discourage dissent out of ‘respect for the office.’”

Right – and wrong.

I’ve said it here before: Beyond being a privilege of freedom, engagement in public affairs, whether in agreement or opposition, is Americans’ responsibility.

But encouraging respect for the presidency isn’t discouraging dissent. It doesn’t mean blindly pledging allegiance to the officeholder, come what may. Indeed, to willfully disregard the uniquely American rights “peaceably to assemble” and “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” simply for protocol’s sake is to disregard what it is to be an American.

There is a difference between protesting a politician and disrespecting the office he holds. The key is to keep protests against politicians in the political arena.

Of course, the beauty of this country is that people are just as free to display their ignorance as they are to protest.

Goodwin recounted with self-serving pride how he booed the president at a university commencement last year.

“If the president believes in the freedoms he says he wants the world to enjoy, then he of all people would have been the most proud of me,” he crowed.

Goodwin is among many Americans who no longer understand the difference between the office and the person holding it.

Consider what happened on the Fourth of July, as President Bush was welcoming to the American family a group of naturalized citizens who were taking their oaths of citizenship.

It was a completely apolitical event, but it was interrupted several times by disruptive protesters yelling at the president about the War in Iraq.

In all likelihood, those protesters were born into their American citizenship.

But by exercising their right to protest when and where they did, they said to the newest Americans, for whom citizenship has long been the fondest of dreams, “My rights matter. Yours do not.”

At one point, Bush raised his voice over a shrieking woman to say, “We believe in free speech in the United States of America.”

Goodwin, of all people, would have been the most proud of him.

Coming up on the blog, a look at the campaign finance reports of Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller and challenger Rainer Meadows.

Don’t forget to vote in the statewide runoff Tuesday!

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