Historians say today’s rebukes of presidents have grown more extreme

Criticism of the president has long been a staple of politics, but experts say lawmakers are becoming more extreme in their rebukes of the commander in chief.

White House scholars say that although every president has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous barbs, it has not historically been members of Congress hurling them. But more lawmakers are now doing so, and that has diminished the office of the presidency, historians say. 

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“You lie!” Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted in the middle of President Obama’s Sept. 9, 2009, address to Congress.

Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), in 2007, said that President George W. Bush was amused by U.S. soldiers getting their heads blown off in Iraq. 

In 1998, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) called President Clinton “a scumbag.” 

“President Bush is a liar,” Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in March 2002, when Bush flip-flopped on a pledge not to consider Yucca Mountain, in Reid’s state, for storing nuclear waste. Reid also called Bush “a loser,” for which he later apologized. He did not retract the “liar” remark, however.

Freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) went after Obama this August. Speaking to an audience in Nunda Township, Ill., he asked, “How idiotic is this president?” 

Walsh was criticizing Obama’s jobs speech to Congress, which he did not attend, despite the recommendation from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that all members “ought to be respectful” and be there.

Such comments are protected by the Constitution, but some argue they diminish the reputation of the Oval Office. 

H.W. Brands, professor of history at the University of Texas-Austin and the author of books on several presidents, said he is not aware of “mockery of the president by elected officials” at the frequency that Obama has been getting it.

“Generally, there has been respect among elected officials for the office of the presidency,” Brands said. “The attacks have usually come from editorialists.”

Some on the right say Obama has invited criticism by stressing bipartisanship while ripping Republicans for playing political games when they don’t agree with him. 

In January 2010, during a House GOP retreat, Obama urged lawmakers to work with him to find common ground and put aside partisanship. 

At the time, he said, “We’ve got to be careful about what we say about each other.”

But Republicans say he made the 2011 budget battle personal when he invited House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan to a high-profile speech and then used the occasion to lambaste the Wisconsin Republican’s budget blueprint.

Ryan later said that Obama had brought the discourse down to the level of a “partisan mosh-pit.” 

Regardless of who started it, public approval ratings of Obama and Congress are at all-time lows.

Still, it sometimes pays to be outspoken or offensive. Wilson raised money off his “You lie” remark in both the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. For his part, Walsh leads all GOP freshmen in fundraising. Mea culpas notwithstanding, he claims his words have been vindicated and tells supporters he was expressing “your outrage.”

“His fundraising has nothing to do with his disagreements with President Obama,” Walsh spokesman Justin Roth told The Hill.

Criticisms of Obama, unlike those of prior presidents, have sparked allegations of racial motivation.

Some on the left claim that elements of the Tea Party are racist. Conservatives counter that liberals cry racism whenever their president’s policies are questioned. 

This summer, during the debt-ceiling debate, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) said he did not want to be associated with Obama.

“It is like touching a tar baby and you get it — you’re stuck, and you’re part of the problem now,” he said.

Lamborn subsequently issued a statement saying he simply meant to refer to a sticky situation and that he had sent an apology to the president.

Walsh also raised eyebrows when he claimed Obama was elected because he was black. Voters, he said, “were in love with him because he pushed that magical button: a black man who was articulate, liberal, the whole white guilt, all of that.”

Walsh said that “there’s nothing racist” about his observations.

“In public statements like these, it is difficult to prove or disprove race as a factor,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of history at Princeton University. “My hunch would be that, in these times of polarized politics, we would see this tough rhetoric no matter what the president’s race.”

Ted Widmer, presidential historian and the director of the Carter Brown Library at Brown University, said that in trying to detect racism in criticism of Obama, each remark must be reviewed carefully. 

“But it sure seems like a pattern,” Widmer added. “And not a pretty one.”

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) has little doubt that race is a factor in some attacks on Obama. The 21-term congressman, who is black, said American history teaches that racism persists. 

“Most racists don’t label themselves as racists,” Rangel told The Hill. “We see them taking liberties with the president, and when we say something, they say, ‘You’re playing the race card.’ Well, sometimes that’s true. We are playing the race card, because what you said was racist.”

Doug Wead, a presidential historian who served as an adviser to Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, said, “The deeper I look into past presidencies, the more it becomes evident that it’s always been mean. It’s been so bitter, for so long. And it’s not politics, not Democrat or Republican. It’s human nature, the dark side of human nature.”

Wead added that the families of Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison suffered greatly from scurrilous gossip passed around with the contrivance of members of Congress.

“And people said the most horrible things about Ronald Reagan,” he said. “The meanness has always been there. And this era is as mean as it’s ever been.”

Wead said he admires how Obama handles it all. “Obama is Reaganesque in how he ignores the attacks, stays above it, gets on with business,” he said.

Widmer, who served as a speechwriter in the Clinton White House, noted that Andrew Johnson and Martin Van Buren were publicly derided by members of the House.

Johnson was viciously attacked by Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R-Pa.), who called him a “wretched man” and “treacherous” and strongly implied that Johnson was a traitor. This happened while the House was impeaching Johnson, and the post-war Congress and president were engaged in a monumental struggle for control of executive power.

During the 1840 presidential election, Rep. Charles Ogle, a Pennsylvania Whig, lambasted Van Buren for spending taxpayers’ money to refurbish the White House.

Among other things, Ogle called the president a “little-souled mortal” and “a little aristocrat” who loved “tassels, rosettes and girlish finery,” and had purchased “green finger cups in which to wash his pretty, tapering, white, lily fingers.” 

Copies of Ogle’s remarks were made, distributed and used in the presidential campaign. Van Buren was roundly defeated. 

Brands offered a reason why character attacks on presidents by elected representatives in former eras are not, with some exceptions, prominent in the historical record.

“Nowadays, it seems, everyone is walking around with a video camera,” he said.

Princeton’s Zelizer agrees: “Before the Internet, before CNN and the 24-hour news cycle, these kind of attacks upon the president did take place.”

But you would have to scour the Congressional Record to find them, he said.

“This does not mean that ours is not a hostile moment in American history,” Zelizer added. “It is.”

And how does this “hostile moment,” this “mean as it’s ever been” political era, reflect on the presidency, the Congress and the nation?

“It’s a disturbing trend, which degrades democracy and a political process that was designed to bring out our best, not our worst,” Widmer said. “By dissing the president, they are dissing the presidency. And by extension, our country. It’s embarrassing.”

Brands opined that the attackers fare worse than the target.

“Such behavior reflects very poorly on the person making the comments,” he said. 

“I think it hurts the presidency,” Zelizer said. “Because of the nature of the Internet and the media, people who do not pay close attention to politics are now regularly seeing and hearing this stuff. I think it probably weakens public confidence.

“I also think you can’t stop it.”