In such matters as the death of a great man, respect matters — especially from our political leaders. Dignity and sober ceremony are called for. These are not trivial requirements, nor are they mere accessories to the event. They are part of the bedrock of enlightened civilization. Surely when America’s president appeared before the TV cameras Saturday evening to deliver his scripted remarks about the death of a Supreme Court Justice, the great Antonin Scalia, Obama should have taken the trouble to dress at least as well as your average law student applying for a summer job.
Instead, flanked by the flags that signal ceremony, but dressed-down after a day on the golf course, the top button of his shirt undone, Obama appeared without a necktie.
TV commentators, in their instant reaction, focused on Obama’s remarks, which combined a brief eulogy of Scalia with Obama’s marker that — suddenly interested at this late date in the Constitution — he expects to have the pleasure of seeing the Senate confirm whomever he nominates as a replacement, rather than waiting for the next president.
But to my mind, the real statement was Obama’s casual omission of a tie — with the attendant implications of disregard for his own office, for the Supreme Court, for the American people he was addressing, and for the late Justice Scalia, who was extraordinary above all for his dedication to liberty. Which does not figure large on Obama’s agenda.
One can only guess what went into Obama’s sartorial choice for these televised remarks to the nation. Did he have no necktie available? He was speaking from California. Has California run out of neckties? Was no one among his ample staff or crowd of golf buddies able to locate one, during the hours leading up to his televised remarks? Did he put one on and then yank it off at the last minute — which would account for his rumpled collar — having decided it was a tad too formal for a golfing weekend? Were his remarks so inconveniently sandwiched in between golf and dinner that he simply skipped that last touch?
Whatever Obama’s intentions, it was an insult. It was of a piece with summoning a Marine to hold an umbrella over his head — something he was too important to do for himself? — while he spoke to the press on a rainy day in the Rose Garden (the Queen of England carries her own umbrella, but the American president, these days, does not). It was of a piece with putting his feet up, over and over, on the Resolute desk in the Oval Office — a storied piece of furniture that does not belong to him, but to all of us.
In terms of respect for the trust placed in him, and the respect it ought to entail on his part for his fellow Americans, it was emblematically of a piece with his vanishing into the recesses of the White House living quarters while Americans, including his ambassador, were dying on Sept. 11-12, 2012 in Benghazi, Libya. The president can’t be bothered.
There is nothing cool about this. It is one of the perquisites of Executive Office in America these days that the president and his family are surrounded by endless trappings of ceremony and respect, from “Hail to the Chief” to Air Force One to honor guards; from costly cuisine to custom-designed rugs to embossed White House napkins. The least the president can do, while eulogizing on national television one of the great Supreme Court justices of our time, is to button up his shirt and wear a tie.