October is Bullying Awareness month and no better time to look at the state of American politics. The country is divided sharply in half. It seems that nothing now is off limited when it comes to hurling insults and hatred from both sides. Twitter has made it all too easy to form a mob of bullies and go on the attack using whatever meme has captivated the chatter cycle that day. Democrats attacked Jim Lehrer after the first debate. Republicans turned their venom on Candy Crowley after the second debate. The owner of a soup kitchen was suddenly caught in the middle of our vicious partisan divide. Democrats wanted him to expose how Paul Ryan had showed up unannounced for a photo op but once he complied with their wishes, Republicans made harassing phone calls. Next thing you know, donors were withdrawing their funding. For a soup kitchen! When will enough be enough?
Through all of the haze, however, I did learn something about standing up to bullies watching President Obama defend himself during the second debate. His first four years in office have been nervous-making for liberals who’ve had to watch the still very racist country lose their minds over this president – he’s a Muslim! He’s a radical! He’s a socialist! He’s a communist! He’s not an American! We’ve watched as the southern led Republican senators vowed to strip him of his power in his first term and then, when Obama still dominated the polls, Romney’s team – funded by the richest men in the country – pulled out any wounding dart they could. When the birth certificate thing didn’t work they moved on to his Kenyan father. When that didn’t work they went after the terrorist attack in Benghazi, focusing on the timing (two mere weeks!) when the president said it was the video. The more calm and responsible administration waited until the facts were in but Romney’s team was running out of time. There had to be something there to make the easily manipulated public thing President Obama was irresponsible.
For democrats it was easier – Romney kept making the gaffes – all they had to do was make sure the American people saw them. I’ve been a part of bullying too, as I’ve laughed at every joke about Paul Ryan that’s turned up on my Facebook and Twitter feed. I’ve photoshopped him, mocked him, poked fun at his odd looking sincerity. Mitt Romney, a confessed bully in high school, seemed to be the butt of every joke. He’s far from the guy getting a wedgie in the men’s room yet we democrats somehow made him into that. But he turned it around in the first presidential debate. He showed America how aggressive he could be, how great he was at taking on his opponent using bullying tactics like interrupting and belittling with a condescending tone. That served the Fox News demographic/tea-party audience well. It helped the Americans who hate Obama have a new reason. America liked Romney as a bully and the poll numbers shot up.
Through the haze of the ugliness that has become this political season the one person who hasn’t engaged in it at all is President Obama. Even at the fundraiser for (name) Obama’s insults at Governor Romney were only equal to have the venom Romney spewed back his way. Gentle by nature, easy going and, frankly, Christian, Obama has never been the confrontational type so we democrats were prepared for the worst last Tuesday.
During the second debate, Mitt brought the same bullying tactics he’d been so handsomely rewarded with during the first debate. He was even more aggressive, confronting the President with palpable hostility. But it was when he said “I’m speaking, you’ll have your chance in a moment,” that the reporters working in the room said they’d heard an audible gasp. No one ever talks to the President that way. That is, unless the President is Barack Obama. It was another one of those questionable moments, like Senator Joe Wilson yelling “You Lie” during the State of the Union when you, that makes the conversations about racism start.
So why didn’t Obama react? Why wasn’t he intimidated? Why didn’t he stammer and look ashamed when treated so disrespectfully? Why did Obama just brush Romney off like chimney dust and go on to show him up with better energy, a more articulate game plan for the country and finally, a gracefully pulled off final move that drew the only big applause from the debate audience? It didn’t phase President Obama because he’d spent his entire life learning how to get beyond it.
Obama had to learn how to fit in wherever he was dropped. He was too white for the black kids and too black for the white kids. During the Frontline episode, The Choice, a childhood friend recounted how a professional tennis player had come to their school and when Obama approached him and reached out to touch the tennis racket, the player said “don’t touch that. You’ll get it dirty.” Obama’s friend said that she understood how ugly the moment was.
By contrast, Romney has never had to practice standing up to bullies. Sure, he grew up Mormon but he was as insulated as you could possibly be from the kind of kids who make treat you differently because of that. He was the bully in school, not the bullied. Anyone who has ever been bullied would have recognized Romney’s tone as he addressed the President of the United States like he was an intern.
I hope kids who are being bullied in school, or even adults who still endure that kind of disrespectful treatment, were watching the debate that night. President Obama stood up, and very pointedly, showed Romney up. He showed him up by brushing him off like chimney dust. That’s harder to do if someone is forcibly holding you down and cutting your hair, but Obama knows now, after all of these years, that sticks and stones might break your bones but words can never hurt you.
It was an important lesson.