I thought of this gentle admonition last week upon learning Michelle Obama encountered a heckler during a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. The first lady’s remarks during the event were interrupted by a lesbian activist who demanded President Barack Obama sign an executive order banning workplace discrimination against gay people.
At this point, according to a press pool report, Mrs. Obama broke from her prepared script and spoke directly to the heckler, “One of the things that I don’t do well is this. Do you understand?”
The first lady then issued an ultimatum: Either the heckler goes or she does. “You all decide. You have one choice,” Obama told the audience.
The heckler was promptly escorted from the venue.
Ellen Sturtz, 56, who interrupted the first lady, later told The Washington Post she was “taken aback” that the first lady would so directly confront her.
What was Sturtz expecting? An invitation to sit down at that moment and engage in a Socratic dialogue? A promise from the first lady that she would make her husband sign that executive order as soon as she returned to the White House?
Hardly. She wanted attention to her cause, and in some very small way this column is giving her that. However, the bigger point has to do with why anyone would engage in this sort of conduct.
Yes, it’s protected by the First Amendment. Yes, politicians and public figures should be held accountable. Truth must be able to speak to power. However, our issue today is on the most effective means of advancing one’s cause. I’m not sure heckling is.
Heckling is a bipartisan activity. Republicans and Democrats alike had better be prepared to be interrupted by protesters, especially on the campaign trail. President Obama was heckled last month during a speech on counterterrorism.
I was in the audience in May 2006 when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke at the Southern Center for International Studies in Atlanta.
Three times during his speech, Rumsfeld was interrupted by protesters who accused him of committing war crimes as part of his involvement in the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq.
“I cannot be silent. This man deserves to be in prison for war crimes,” one protester shouted before being dragged from the hall by security.
“How can you sit here and listen to this war criminal?” another said. Speaking to Rumsfeld, he said, “You are a serial killer.”
As one protester was led out of the room, Rumsfeld quipped, “We’ll just put her down to undecided,” a remark that lifted the tension from the air.
For the record, seven years later the movement to try Rumsfeld for war crimes doesn’t seem to seem to be going anywhere despite the best efforts of the hecklers in that audience in Atlanta.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org or @EditorBobDavis.