What does conservative pundit Tucker Carlson have to do with an outhouse in Montana?
More than you might think.
Over the weekend, the Montana Republican Party proved wrong those of us who believe our political discourse has gone down the toilet. In fact, our political discourse has gone to a place where there isn’t even plumbing.
Outside the Montana GOP convention in Missoula stood an outhouse labeled “Obama Presidential Library” and painted as though it had been shot full of holes, according to the local paper. Inside, a fake birth certificate for “Barack Hussein Obama” was stamped with an expletive referring to bovine droppings. A message in the structure gave fake phone numbers for Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi “For a Good Time.”
The state party chairman, Will Deschamps, said that the structure was not in “real good taste. We do have a president of the United States, and we have to honor that.” But he also dismissed the matter as a “sideshow” and “not something I’m going to agonize over.”
But the outhouse is not a sideshow. It is something we should all be agonizing over.
There are always going to be nuts at both ends of the political spectrum who do and say ugly things. Usually, leaders denounce the vile elements among them and try to distance themselves.
Under the Obama presidency, however, conservative leaders are encouraging the vulgarity — if not joining in by heckling the president from the House floor. The Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, recently shared a stage with Donald Trump only hours after the buffoon tycoon had again floated the disproved allegation that Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Among many such episodes before that, Romney failed to challenge a supporter who suggested to him that Obama “should be tried for treason.”
Conservative leaders may believe it benefits them that one in six voters still thinks Obama is Muslim. But when conservatives sanction the debasement of Obama, they are debasing the presidency itself. A Gallup poll last year found that only 35 percent of Americans had confidence in the presidency. A Harris poll last month found that only 22 percent of Americans have a high degree of confidence in the White House.
That’s why my confidence in Tucker Carlson has dropped. I’ve liked him for years, even forgiving him his brief moment on “Dancing with the Stars.” I have been impressed by his launch of the Daily Caller, a website with first-rate talent. But now Carlson is turning the Daily Caller into the Daily Heckler.
As is now widely known, one of Carlson’s reporters, Neil Munro, interrupted Obama midway through a Rose Garden statement on immigration, demanding to know why the president was favoring “foreigners over American workers” and informing him that “you have to take questions.” Later, when Obama tried to address Munro’s topic, the journalist continued to interrupt and hector.
A reporter heckling a president in the Rose Garden was an outrageous and unprecedented affront to the office. Munro later offered a reasonable, if not terribly believable, explanation, saying that he “timed the question believing the president was closing his remarks, because naturally I have no intention of interrupting the president.”
But Carlson went further, saying that he would like to give Munro a raise for not being a “stenographer” like other White House reporters. He said Munro was doing what ABC’s Sam Donaldson did when he shouted questions at Ronald Reagan. (Donaldson justifiably disagrees.) Carlson’s website posted a clip purporting to show “Reagan heckled by entire WH press corps.” But the video in fact shows reporters breaking in to ask questions when Reagan tried to hand off the lectern to his attorney general.
Carlson told me Tuesday that he was “making a larger point about the passive nature of press coverage from the White House” and its tendency to be too respectful of authority “across all presidencies.” I agree on this. I’ve criticized Obama and his predecessor for taking too few questions, and I’ve at times scolded the press corps under both presidents for being soft in its questioning.
I also don’t join the charge that Munro is necessarily racist (although some Obama disparagement surely is), and I don’t agree with those who say the White House should revoke his press pass. But I think Carlson should fire him.
Heckling the president in the middle of a Rose Garden speech isn’t holding the president to account. It is belittling the presidency, and it smells just as bad as an outhouse in the Missoula summer.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.