February 28 2014
The New Courtiers: Or Things You Can No Longer Say “in the Shadow of the West Wing”
Governor Bobby Jindal has committed a shocking faux pas.
A headline from Time magazine summed up the Louisiana hick's horrific impropriety this way:
Jindal Breaches White House Protocol to Take Shots at Obama.
Poor, hopeless rube from Louisiana, Mr. Jindal obviously left his copy of Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtierback home in the swamps. The governor mistook the National Governors Association’s meeting—including the White House visit—as an opportunity for a frank conversation about the problems the country faces. Not least of the governor's social sins, Jindal appears to have expected a Louis XIV-style levee at the White House to be a give-and-take session on the nation's future. Well, I never!
Just to reassure you: I must hasten to add that the “shots” fired by Mr. Jindal were verbal shots only—of the sort that American politicians have fired at our chief executive since the republic began. But court etiquette has evolved.
Poor Mr. Jindal was so unaware of the perfect courtier's rules that are now followed in Washington that shortly after meeting with President Obama the Louisiana naif did the unthinkable: Jindal took to the mic at a governors’ press conference and criticized President Obama’s handling of the economy.
Without preamble, Jindal stated that the Obama administration is “waving a white flag” on economic issues. “The Obama economy is now the minimum wage economy,” Jindal added. Jindal stated his views firmly but without rudeness, rancor or name calling. Still, he was out of sync with current etiquette.
In the telling of an aghast Time magazine scribe, Jindal “launched into a repeated assault on President Barack Obama’s leadership in the shadow of the West Wing, in defiance of established bipartisan protocol.” I’m no protocol officer, but I distinctly remember how in the old days people were not considered lepers if they left a White House meeting and spoke their minds. (Here is a clip of some of what Jindal said.)
The previously-quoted Court Circular couldn’t get over Jindal’s rudeness:
[Jindal’s] remarks were a sharp contrast from the focus on cooperation and carefully watered-down criticism of Obama offered by Republican Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, the chair of the NGA.
Governor Dan Malloy, a Democrat from Connecticut, likewise swooned at Jindal’s plain, country ways. Malloy, who was clad in knee breeches and velvet hose (okay, I made that up), quickly jumped before the cameras to proclaim Jindal’s remark “the most insane statement I’ve ever heard.” Since court etiquette does not proscribe attacks on Republicans--which have escalated--I can only ask: Where has the tender Mr. Malloy been for lo these last five or so years?
It is meet and right that President Obama be accorded an extra measure of respect because of his historic place as the first African American president. But the courtier mentality of Washington today is something else entirely. Elected governors should be alarmed by the notion that disagreeing with the head of state “not ten feet from the West Wing” is somehow wrong. America has more robust political traditions. I can’t imagine that Henry Clay, for example—who publicly called President Andrew Jackson “a backwoods Caesar”-- would be shocked by Jindal’s remarks. The great orator would be more shocked by the pathetic attempts to silence legitimate criticism by stigmatizing it as socially unacceptable.
An American president is not supposed to be He (or She) Who Cannot Be Criticized. The shocked reaction to Jindal’s very much needed remarks about the president and the economy put me in mind of Law 24—Play the Perfect Courtier—in The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Green’s 1998 bestseller:
The perfect courtier thrives in a world where everything revolves around power and political dexterity. He has mastered the art of indirection; he flatters, yields to superiors, and asserts power over others in the most oblique and graceful manner. Learn and apply the laws of courtier-ship and there will be no limit to how far you can rise in the court.
In the past the court garnered around the ruler, and had many functions: Besides keeping the ruler amused, it was a way to solidify the hierarchy of royalty, nobility, and the upper classes, and to keep the nobility both subordinate and close to the ruler, so that he could keep an eye on them. The court serves power in many ways, but most of all it glorifies the ruler, providing him with a microcosmic world that must struggle to please him.
Don’t get me wrong—I don’t believe that President Obama will become a monarch. That would be silly. But governments and people change slowly and in almost imperceptible ways. The awe that President Obama’s supporters demand for him is unprecedented in the history of the American presidency. It is bad for the presidency and for this president, who lives in a gilded cocoon and is not used to what he regards as heretical views, in particular. He needs more, not fewer, encounters with those who do not share his views.
The economy has not revived fully since the Great Recession, and the Congressional Budget Office has forecast that half million Americans will lose their jobs if the president’s minimum wage hike goes into effect and another 2.5 million over the next decade as a result of ObamaCare. Meanwhile, the president says he can bypass Congress and govern with his phone and pen.
Yet Governor Malloy and Time magazine believe it is a breach of protocol to talk about such matters as the economy in the shadow of the West Wing. Where else should these matters be broached if not there?