You probably remember Kanye West claiming that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on a live telethon back in 2005, but you might not recall Bush’s own response to it. That’s because it came more than five years later. Bush was two years removed from office, and only addressed it at the behest of interviewer Matt Lauer.
For those with a long memory for fiery awards show acceptance speeches, you might also remember Michael Moore’s 2003 speech at the Oscars, in which he called George W. Bush a “fictitious president,” and decried: “Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you.” Bush never publicly reacted.
Meryl Streep’s speech at last night’s Golden Globes was far different from West’s and Moore’s. It was calm and thought out, not blustery or even a direct attack. She never addressed the President-elect by name, and the messages were ones that are taught in Sunday School—that we should be nice to others, that telling the truth is important, and that we should not cruelly mock people who are different from us, or with whom we disagree.
President-elect Donald Trump’s reaction, too, was different not only from Bush’s, but from virtually all of the men who have held the office of President (and we are not singling out George W. Bush for any reason other than the fact that he received quite a bit of celebrity criticism—even from, ahem, Donald Trump).
In a New York Times interview, during which the paper noted he “grew heated,” Trump denounced Streep’s speech, and then took to Twitter to call Streep a “Hillary flunky” and one of the “most overrated actresses in Hollywood.”
Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t be how or how quickly in which a person in Trump’s position responded, but rather that they would have responded at all.
The presidency is—and should be—the most closely scrutinized and criticized job in the country. The main reason our Bill of Rights even exists is to protect our abilities to criticize the position and that of other elected officials. The vast majority of men who have served in the office, and especially the most successful, have not only accepted this but were open to it. On the other side of the extreme, some of our more fallible presidents have had the tendency to not only not get caught up in criticism but to act as if there isn’t any in the first place (that might have been the younger Bush’s secret, to be honest).
Trump’s tendency to fall into petty drama traps, especially with celebrities, is frankly bizarre. Here we have a man who included heavy criticism of Beyoncé, of all people, into one of his final campaign speeches. Now he is feuding with Meryl Streep on Twitter just days before his inauguration. I can’t pretend to understand exactly what his supporters saw in Trump and hoped he would achieve, but surely roasting Beyonce and Meryl wasn’t at the top of the list.
Trump says he was “not surprised” by Streep’s speech, or the reaction from the “liberal movie people.” Which begs the question as to why he’d even respond in the first place: Apparently, because he takes issue with the idea that he actually did insult a physically disabled journalist (his excuse, so much as it constitutes one, is that he’s used the same expression for non-disabled people as well).
The tit-for-tat specifics are besides the point. Liberals are going to criticize Trump every step of the way, much in the same way that conservatives criticized Obama for eight years. Yet, the current President didn’t unleash a Tweet stream every time some Fox News guests slighted him, even as they did so relentlessly and reflexively. Nor did George W. Bush get on the horn first thing in the morning with The Wall Street Journal to shout his feelings about the Dixie Chicks controversy. Can you even imagine if Bill Clinton responded to all the late night jokes made about the Lewinsky affair with even half the regularity that Trump responds to similar slights?
Trump is right when he says Streep’s speech was not surprising. Getting publicly criticized might as well be in the president’s job description.
But his reaction, historically speaking, is.