Monday, December 08, 2008

Dignity of the Office

There are good discussions of the Favreau photo showing Obama's chief speechwriter and another Obama staffer performing lewd acts on a cutout photo of Hillary Clinton, with Favreau grabbing Sen. Clinton's breast while the other staffer grabs her hair and forces her to chug beer. See posts one, two and three on Alegre's Corner, and posts at one and two at Corrente, Feminist Law Professors, Historiann, Shakesville and TalkLeft. My opinion of Favreau himself is that he finds denegration through sexual molestation a neat-o thing, and I pity those who have to deal with him on a daily basis. I am a little unclear on when the photo was taken (Before June? Near the convention? Before the election? Within the last few weeks?) and I am also uncertain about his employment status (Is he currently chief speech writer? Applying for a job at State?), but these are subsidiary concerns, things that slightly increase or decrease the offensiveness of the image but do not change the political circumstances of the revelation of the image.

The question of Favreau himself (well discussed at the above linked blogs) may be getting most of the attention but that is not where the political issues lie. The political question remains: what will Obama do with this challenge to his authority? Does he have the political acumen and self-assurance to make a well-timed example of someone who has been important to the campaign?

The stance Obama takes towards Favreau will have repercussions. To say "Sorry, this behavior does not measure up to this administration's standards, can't have this around," would clearly communicate some serious expectations for executive staff performance and workplace environment. To fail to do so will damage the administration.

The reluctance to act upon the irreducible fact of this photo is paradigmatic of Obama's political behavior. He is loath to spend political capital to do the right thing if that thing involves an implicit (let alone explicit) criticism of himself. This is one of the reasons the Rev. Wright situation dragged on as long as it did. The desire to not be wrong overshadows the desire to do what is right, particularly if there is political advantage (real or imagined) to be wrung from the wrong. I compare this political tendency - wait out bad news and see if it will resolve itself - to the behavior of banks that have reaped a windfall from the Hanky Panky. They have capital but will not put it at any risk even when the long term danger for failing to do so dwarfs any immediate penalty. The Village snickers at Hillary's degradation, shills like Campbell Brown want HRC to act out their own private revenge fantasies instead of behave like a public figure of stature, and the public is distracted by the collapsing economy. It must be tempting to see if this situation can be toughed out.

What should be an opportunity to set a number of political expectations is being allowed to slide down the memory hole to defend the imagined hoard of capital.

But this isn't a campaign and we are talking serious, high-stakes politics. Hillary Rodham Clinton is not an electoral adversary, nor is she just another senator. By virtue of her appointment as Secretary of State, she is the representative of the United States to the world. She embodies American policy and reliability to other sovereign nations. To allow this image of her being treated with disrespect by a close associate of the president, someone who appears to be on track as a member of the administration, says two things to the nations and diplomats she will engage:
  1. Go ahead, piss on her. We do.
  2. We don't respect you enough to send someone we respect to treat with you.

Had this photo come out during the campaign, it could have been kept an individual matter, dimissed (however disingenuously) as the unfortunate side effect of a highly competitive contest. But now Hillary has been named Secretary of State and the revelation of the contempt under these circumstances carries a different meaning. This image is no longer about her. This is not a situation of her making. It is an act of denegration towards her. She cannot respond to it politically because, while it is a personal insult, it is not her political predicament.

It is about defending the dignity and authority of a cabinet officer, which is identical with defending the dignity and authority of the administration as such. It is about Obama's ability to maintain order and enforce discipline. In this case, the president is responsible for defending the nation, as represented by a member of his cabinet, from violation and degredation. That the acts were perfomed on a cardboard cutout should increase awareness of the symbolic import of an assault upon a representation of the country. People have mentioned (and even Photoshopped in) faces of other women, which misses the point. The correct reshuffling of that image would be to have foreign nationals in the place of the staffers. What is done to the Secretary of State is done to the nation.

As I mentioned above, it is not clear when the picture was taken but that is irrelevant. The repercussions of this demonstration of disrespect are happening now.

The dignity, efficacy and authority of the office is at stake.



harpie said...

Exactly right, Anglachel.

How can he possibly claim to be able to "restore America's standing in the world" when, though his words may soar, he keeps his own feet solidly based in the muck?

[In]actions speak louder than “just words”.

“The world” is watching.

sister of ye said...

I don't see Obama taking any action against Favreau.

Obama's compaign demonstrated that he shares the disrespect toward women in general and Clinton in particular. There was no call to employ a strategy of misogyny - except that it was an easy and effective means to take down a more qualified rival. That was despicable.

More importantly, Obama always hedges his bets. My biggest reservation about Clinton accepting the Sec. State post was that Obama would undercut her and use her as a scapegoat. Keeping misogyny in circulation and CDS alive will make it easier if needed to kick Clinton to the curb. Or take down another female opponent.

Is it a stupid strategy to undercut your own appointee? Absolutely. Will it hurt the country to undermine the work of its top diplomat? A certainty. But for Obama, as with Bush, winning the contest to grab the prestige and power is everything.

Actually governing? Who worries about the peasants? It's good to be the king.

Julie said...

Thanks for posting that. My husband was skeptical when I expressed frustration about the endemic misonygy in the campaign. That made it (belatedly) easier to explain myself.

cmugirl said...

Nothing will happen. This is already "old news" and no one is paying attention and will just be seen as the cry of bitter HRC supporters who can't get over that she lost.

Koshem Bos said...

It's an excellent insight into the behavior depicted by the photograph and Obama's obvious and inherent non reaction.

Two short comments:

Hillary's gravitas will carry her as far as she want to get; no photograph of this type will cause her real damage.

Except his sermons/oration, Obama's speeches are mediocre and uninspiring. He'll do himself a favor by getting rid of Mr Favreau.

Cordelia said...

If dignity of the office is at stake, then we can pretty much write it off. Obama has never used any office he's held as anything other than a means for advancing his own personal interests and the interests of his associates (as long as the latter were still useful). It's an attitude that, once adopted at the top of the pyramid, will permeate all the way down to the Favreaus of this world. Favreau strikes me a lot like Obama--not committed to any principle other than self-advancement, as he clearly hoped to parlay his campaign services into a plum job in the administration.

But, then again, what else one might expect from a product of Chicago politics where using public means for private gain is the natural order of things?

Elise said...

According to Favreau was named White House Director of Speechwriting on November 26. As for when the photo was taken, the Washington Post referred to it on December 4 as having been taken at a “recent party”. Perhaps once Favreau had the job he no longer felt he needed to worry about the transition team vetting document’s questions regarding websites and embarassing information.

I agree Hillary would not have done herself or the country any favors by acting out Brown’s revenge fantasy but I do wish she had not made light of the episode. I would have preferred a statement along the lines of:

Mr. Favreau is quite young so perhaps he does not understand how disrespectful he was being to me, to women in general, to the Office of the Secretary of State, and to the man who chose me to represent the United States to the rest of the world. I trust that Mr. Favreau’s supervisor will explain the penalties for sexual harassment in the workplace and that there will be no more incidents like this.

Bob Harrison said...

In my younger days, I lived in the same complex as a frat house-- in fact they owned it. This kind of crap was a weekly tradition with them, except most of the groping was on live women. Every time I got swoggled into going to one of their parties, I left early and happy-- to be away from creeps and gropers. I still despise the type, and Favreau is one of them. All of these types are two beers away from rapists, so all you women are right to be alarmed by this behavior. It is a warning sign.

The Raving Badger said...

Great post. The argument is the best I have seen and not as shill as most. Regardless, that type of behavior will not stop. It was utilized during the primary successfully and will continue to be utilized until it is an absolute liability and joins the likes of JJ, Sr., Wright, grandma, Rezko, GRod, etc. under the proverbial bus.

I think BO likes Jon enough to keep him around despite the bad behavior. It's nothing that bruises BO's ego or puts him in danger of going to the Big House.