Webb and Etiquette

There’s a been a little tempest in a teapot over an exchange between Senator-elect Jim Webb and the President last week. At a White House reception for new members of Congress, Bush asked Webb how his son was doing. Webb, whose son is serving in Iraq, responded, “I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President.” Bush countered, “I didn’t ask you that. I asked how your boy was doing.”

The New York Times has interviewed several “etiquette experts” for its Week in Review section and asked their opinions about the exchange.

“I’m surprised and offended by Jim Webb,” said Stephen Hess, the author of “The Little Book of Campaign Etiquette” and a professor at George Washington University. “If you accept somebody’s invitation, you’re expected to respond in socially acceptable ways. Why go to be rude? Is it so awful to be polite? He was secretary of the Navy, for heaven’s sake!”


First, these are not ordinary people at a dinner party. These are politicians responsible for matters of life and death. And one of the two politicians is responsible for sending American troops to die in the middle of a pointless war.

Second, this is a democracy, not a monarch’s court. An American president is not a king. And a president who values “plain talk” certainly shouldn’t complain when someone dishes it out to him.

Third, Webb’s response wasn’t rude. He doesn’t appear to have used impolite or foul language. An incoming senator expressed an opinion to the President of the United States on a matter of public policy.

Judith Martin, who writes the syndicated column under the name Miss Manners, said that even discussions of war and life and death did not justify suspending the rules. “On the contrary, diplomacy is what’s supposed to stave off wars and other violence,” she said.

This isn’t diplomacy. This is two politicians from the same country.

On criticizing the president in his own house, [Letitia] Baldrige quotes the French: ça ne se fait pas — “it is not done.”

Bull. It’s not “his own house.” It’s the people’s house.

This is why I think etiquette rules are crap.

5 thoughts on “Webb and Etiquette

  1. This was actually part of today’s sermon at my church. The topic was civility, and it seems to be our general opinion that the President flunked the test big time. Does civility demand that we politely ignore that our President dragged us into an immoral, illegal, unwinnable war under false pretenses? To me, Webb’s response seems perfectly legitimate and wholly restrained, given the crimes of which our Commander in Chief is guilty.

  2. I tend to think that people who say “etiquette is crap” are the first ones to be offended if they think they’re being treated rudely. Rudeness doesn’t just mean using foul or impolite language. It means behaving inappropriately in a given situation on purpose. In this case, I think Bush’s question was both stupid and rude. He knew that Webb’s son is in Iraq; he knew Webb is both appalled by the way Bush has run our invasion and scared for his son’s safety; and he knew there was no graceful way for Webb to respond. It’s true that Webb’s response didn’t answer the question, technically, but he was far less rude than Bush.

    One is supposed to show respect to the office of the President, no matter who currently occupies it. There was a scene on The West Wing a few years back when a conservative radio show host didn’t stand when Bartlet entered the room. He gave a quick, angry lesson on the reasons why, and she stood up, angry as hell. I despise just about everything Bush has done as President, but I’d stand in the unlikely event he and I ever occupy the same room. He may not be a monarch, but he is the Head of State, sad to say. Too bad he can’t even do that right.

    I don’t think Miss Manners was using the word “diplomacy” in its narrow meaning of polite negotiation between sovereign powers. The word is often used to describe anybody communicating in a way calculated not to offend. I think things would go a lot more smoothly in Washington and in life if people tried to be a little more diplomatic.

  3. What I find annoying about that little analysis is that they’re jumping on Jim. As if Georgie’s response was polite and pleasant and perfectly pleasing. Bunk. Regardless of whether Jim was rude, George certainly was rude in this response.

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