Paul Rahe: Obama’s gestures

Paul Rahe is the learned professor of history at Hillsdale College and author of the three-volume study Republics Ancient and Modern. Professor Rahe’s Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect has just been published. If any scholarly study in the history of political thought was ever timely, Soft Despotism is it. Mark Steyn freely draws on Professor Rahe’s new book in the lead article featured in the current issue of the New Criterion.


Professor Rahe has promised us a column for Power Line readers on his new book when he gets access to a library. In the meantime, he has forwarded us his thoughts on the photograph of President Obama (above) that was posted on the Drudge Report yesterday:

On Tuesday, the White House released a photograph of President Obama nonchalantly leaning back in his chair with his feet on the desk, the soles of his shoes clearly visible–as he spoke on the telephone with Benyamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel. Some in the Israeli press have interpreted the release of the photograph as an expression of contempt, intended for Arab consumption, inspired by the hurling of a shoe at President Bush in Baghdad some months back.

Far-fetched thoough these fears might seem, I suspect that these Israelis are not being hypersensitive. Barack Obama has a history of belittling his adversaries in just such a fashion. In April 2008, he was caught on tape during a debate with Hillary Clinton, rubbing his hand across the right side of his face and extending his middle finger in an obscene gesture that many in the audience could see it but she could not, and when this provoked laughter on the part of his supporters he responded with a knowing smile.

Later, after accepting his party’s nomination, he did precisely the same thing during a debate with John McCain; and, after Sarah Palin remarked at the Republican National Convention that the only difference between a pit bull and a soccer mom was lipstick, he observed at a rally that a pig with lipstick is still a pig. Again, many in the audience caught the dig and they, too, were rewarded with a knowing smile.

Obama is, in fact, a master of the insulting gesture. There is no other construction that one can put on his conduct towards Gordon Brown when the British prime minister paid him a visit shortly after his inauguration. First, in an ostentatious manner, he returned to the British embassy a bust of Winston Churchill that had been loaned to his predecessor. Then, when Brown presented him with a pen made from timber used in a British ship once involved in putting down the slave trade, he gave him in return a stack of movies on DVD which could not be played on machines sold in Europe.

Were Obama a yokel, one might be able to explain this away. But a yokel he is not, and there are State Department protocol officers who are highly sensitive to the proprieties. It is no accident that, at about the same time, the White House press secretary intimated in the presence of members of the British press that there was no special relationship between the United States and Great Britain. Obama’s gesture was a calculated insult–meant to be understood only by those to whom it was directed.

If we are to comprehend what is going on, we must pay close attention not only to what Obama says but to what he conveys in other ways. His tone is nearly always moderate but what he hints at and what he intimates by way of body language often convey the opposite. Witness his warm embrace of Hugo Chavez. Behind the thin veneer of politeness, there is, I suspect, something ugly lurking. In the first of the autobiographies that he claims to have written, Barack Obama frequently speaks of himself as being in the grips of rage. We would do well to take him at his word. If we are to stop him from doing great damage to this country and to our friends and allies, we must take every opportunity that comes our way to unmask the man.


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