In my time, I’ve covered lots of public meetings. I’ve also seen my share of hecklers. Over the years, they’ve come from both left and right and sometimes no particular political ideology, other than opposition to whatever the speaker was saying.
They’ve all had one thing in common, though: None of them looked good doing it.
The occasion for this observation is, of course, this week’s State of the Union Address where Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, proudly heckled President Joe Biden.
Before I go further, let me lay out my credentials for criticizing Good’s behavior.
In 2017, when I was editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times, I attended a public meeting in Moneta held by Good’s predecessor, Rep. Tom Garrett, R-Buckingham County. That meeting was loudly disrupted by protesters who presumably came from left of center politically. At least one was escorted out by police.
Here’s what I wrote then: “What the heck is wrong with people?”
I went on to say:
“To call this behavior sophomoric is to do an injustice to sophomores. Indeed, earlier in the day Garrett spoke to students at Chatham High School and Gretna High School, part of his goal to visit every public high school in the district this year. Students there also asked challenging questions for a conservative Republican – on climate change, on guns – but they didn’t try to hoot down the congressman the way some adults did in Moneta.
“So yes, kids acted better than the adults did. That speaks well of the students, and not so well of the adults whose juvenile antics were on full public display.”
I headlined that piece “Shameful conduct at Garrett’s town hall.”
In 2019, President Donald Trump spoke at Jamestown and Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax County, interrupted his speech to object to Trump’s immigration policies. He was also escorted out by police and later tweeted: “I just disrupted the @realDonaldTrump speech in Jamestown because nobody’s racism and bigotry should be excused for the sake of being polite. The man is unfit for office and unfit to partake in a celebration of democracy, representation, and our nation’s history of immigrants.” I wrote for The Roanoke Times that Samirah was wrong and pointed out that “he wound up making Trump look like the one who was restrained, which isn’t an easy thing to do.”
So there are two instances where I’ve criticized those on the left for interrupting a Republican speaker, so I feel on solid moral ground to criticize someone on the right for interrupting a Democratic speaker.
Good justified his behavior by telling CNN: “Well I think the greater offense is for the president to lie to the American people about something so important, try to scare American seniors simply because Republicans are trying to do the responsible thing.” (The subject was Biden’s contention that some Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare.)
At the risk of quoting myself, I’ll quote myself. This is what I wrote in 2019: “Disrupting the speech achieves nothing — it only further polarizes our civic life.”
Before I get to the philosophy on that, let’s deal with some of the practical political effects.
First, the Republicans heckling Biden prompted the president to respond – and he looked good doing so. The immediate effect is that those heckling Republicans made the 80-year-old president look lively, quick-witted and in charge. They did for him what he has not been able to do for himself.
Second, the heckling Republicans undermined their own party’s message. In the party’s formal response, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared: “The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy. It’s time for a new generation of Republican leadership.” The problem with that line is we had just seen some Republicans – Good included – acting in a not-very-normal way. The first duty of a party out of power is to present itself as a mature, responsible party capable of governing better than the party in power. The sight of Republican hecklers does not help persuade voters that this is a party of serious-minded people who should be entrusted with the government. By that measure, it’s Republicans who should be the most upset with Good and his fellow hecklers. They looked juvenile and undisciplined. Democrats were thrilled by their outburst. I’m pretty sure that Good’s intent was not to boost Biden’s standing but that’s the short-term result of his actions.
As I wrote about Garrett’s left-wing hecklers in 2017: “All those disruptions only served to make Garrett look like the adult in the room – and make his opponents look foolish. They want to govern the nation? They can’t even govern their own emotions. Can they not comport themselves with even minimal levels of public decorum?”
Sometimes readers tell me they can’t tell my politics. Others sometimes say they’re certain of them (and often get them wrong). Mostly I’m in favor of decorum.
In 2017, Samirah excused his disruption of Trump by saying that Trump was a racist and a bigot.
This week, Good excused his disruption of Biden by saying that Biden is a liar.
The problem with these excuses is there’s always going to be some excuse. Is this how we want society to work?
We live in a diverse – and divided – society. Somehow we all need to manage to figure out a way to live together. There will always be one party in power and one party out of power but the only way democracy functions is if we have some minimal respect for the other side. If Good feels that the president is being untruthful, he has multiple ways to express that view other than by heckling during the State of the Union Address.
Ultimately, the question is do we want our public officials to model the behavior they’d like to see citizens follow? If Good thinks it’s acceptable for people to heckle speakers who they feel are mischaracterizing something, that would be useful to know. Someday we’ll have a Republican president; the nature of our country is that things swing back and forth. The heckling at this year’s State of the Union Address makes it easier for Democrats to heckle that future Republican chief executive. It also makes it easier for anyone to justify heckling anyone anyplace else. That’s not the kind of society I want to live in, but maybe Good does.
We may have many problems in this country, some more recognizable than others. Here’s one that doesn’t get much attention but should: We have a problem getting good people to offer themselves for public office. Unlike many in my profession, I generally admire most politicians. I think most are decent people who get into politics for the right reason – they feel they can make their communities better. There are lots of others, though, who shy away from running and I completely understand their reasons: Why would they subject themselves to this kind of humiliation? If you ever lament the quality of the candidates you have to choose from, that’s one of the reasons. Heckling the president – any president – only coarsens our public discourse and makes it that much harder to persuade good people to run for office. It may feel cathartic to the heckler but it’s rude and, ultimately, bad for society.
That’s what I wrote in 2017 when people heckled Good’s predecessor. That’s what I wrote in 2020 when a Democratic legislator heckled Trump. That’s what I write now when Good heckled Biden. I hope I don’t have to write it again but I fear I will.