WILSON: "But we have to get to something that our listeners have been commenting about over the last couple of days, and it had to do with that Labor Day event. The President takes the stage, but a few minutes before he did that, Jimmy Hoffa, Jr., was on the stage, and said that he had an army ready to do the President's bidding, and to -- "-- White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, September 7, 2011, appearing on WMAL "Morning Majority" show with hosts Brian Wilson, Bryan Nehman, and Mary Katharine Ham. The discussion concerned comments by Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, Jr., at a Labor Day rally (at which President Barack Obama also spoke, after Hoffa), on September 5, 2011.
[AUDIO CLIP OF HOFFA PLAYS]
HOFFA: "Let's take these son of a bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong."
[AUDIO CLIP OF HOFFA ENDS]
WILSON: "Now yesterday, Dan, there were many opportunities for the White House to say that was language that was over the top, to say that perhaps that the rhetoric had gone too far. Jay Carney had time and time and time again was given the opportunity to do that, and refused to do it. Does it mean then that there is tacit approval at the White House at the things that Mr. Hoffa has said?"
PFEIFFER: "No. Look, I think that this is a bit of a parlor game in Washington, which is, let's try to take anything that anyone who supports a politician or the President or [inaudible] Republican candidate says, and pin it on them and make the, you know, President have to serve as the speech police for the Democratic party. And someone from the Republicans do the same thing -- "
WILSON: "But, Dan, it was -- he said that he had an army ready to do the President's bidding, and that it was time to take the S.O.B.s out. That's a sort of a harsh thing that you should say before the President of the United States speaks. The President has called for you know, a greater and higher political discourse in this country, this doesn't seem to meet the standard."
PFEIFFER: "Well, look, that's a judgment for you guys to make, it's a judgment for others to make. It's -- I don't think -- what the President went there to talk about what he was going to do to create jobs and grow the economy, that's what he's going to do on Thursday night. And, I can promise you that I would do nothing else with my day if it was only to serve as the person to approve or disapprove of what every person in the Democratic Party or who supports the President said -- "
WILSON: "So I just have to ask you, do you think this is appropriate language in that event?"
PFEIFFER: "Look, I wasn't at that event, I wasn't there -- "
NEHMAN: "But you heard it. You've heard the tape . Come on, you know all about it."
PFEIFFER: "What's that?"
WILSON: "You've heard it, you've listened to it no doubt. It's been out -- you know what was said. I'm asking you now, in retrospect, was that appropriate language to be used at a presidential event?"
PFEIFFER: "Look, I think playing the sort of gotcha game where you get the White House to -- "
WILSON: "So you're not going to disavow these comments, either."
PFEIFFER: "We are focused on what the President's saying, what the President wants to do and how we move forward and we're not going to get caught into distractions like this."
NEHMAN: "OK, so then we won't hear anybody from the White House then ask a Republican to take back a comment that somebody may make in the future if it may go possibly over the line."
PFEIFFER: "If you're asking me whether we're going to ask someone to be responsible for everything that was said at every event, I don't know that you've ever heard us do that -- "
NEHMAN: "Well, 2008, actually, there was calls for John McCain when Bill Cunningham made reference before a speech to take back what he said."
PFEIFFER: "I was on that campaign. I have zero recollection of that. But that's not surprising, considering that whole two-year period of my life is sort of a blur. But -- so I don't remember what that was, I don't know whether we called for that. I don't remember certainly doing that myself. I don't remember the President doing that."
NEHMAN: "OK, so civility, then is just up to each individual. It has nothing to do with John Boehner, has nothing to do with Barack Obama. It has nothing to do with other leaders of certain parties."
PFEIFFER: "No, what everyone should do is -- is -- is -- is make their best judgment of how they be civil. What I don't think makes sense is to distract from the major issues at hand to try to get everyone to go back and approve and disapprove of every single thing that every single person has said. I don't think -- "
HAM: "But it seems fair to me, given that the tone and the rhetoric and that entire message has been a central part of who Barack Obama is as a President and as a leader, that this makes me wonder, did he really mean it, or was he just using it in the wake of other people saying things that -- the party he didn't particularly agree with."
PFEIFFER: "No, I think he, I think -- you mean, you have -- the President has carried himself in a certain way, and he'll continue to carry himself in a way that is -- where he is civil, respectful, is someone who is willing -- and gets much guff from his own party for doing it, for being willing to look for agreement with even people he has vehement disagreement with. Look at some of his people he worked closely with on, like Senator Tom Coburn, who agrees on almost nothing with the President, but where they can find small areas of agreement, they'll work together. And so, that's who the President is, that's the campaign he ran in 2008, that's the campaign he's going to run in 2012. What I don't think makes sense is to say, OK -- is to then try to get off the major issues at hand by taking everything that anyone says at an event that the President attends as a guest and ask them to -- and ask the President to approve or disapprove."
HAM:"I look forward to the new standard."
Comment: First, it's not a "parlor game" or "gotcha game" or a "distraction" or some sort of "guilt by association" rhetoric to ask people to criticize incivility (and Hoffa's comments clearly were just that). And asking Obama to criticize one instance of incivility isn't asking him to "police" the speech of everything said by everyone in his party. Is that what Democrats were asking Republicans to do when they demanded that Republicans rebuke Rush Limbaugh for his name-calling of Sandra Fluke? No, of course not. (Note that, days after this interview on WMAL, the Obama campaign introduced AttackWatch.com, a website policing the speech of many people, so long as they had said something critical of Obama.) Obama has called for a higher standard of political dialogue and that involves defying and rebuking incivility even-handedly, not just in your opponents. Second, Pfeiffer is evading the question when he says he wasn't and the event that Hoffa spoke at (he doesn't need to be to at the event to evaluate what Hoffa said at it), and again evading the question when he says civility is "a judgment for others to make". Lastly, contrary to what Pfeiffer says, Obama is not a good example of civility. Civility isn't about working with opponents, it's about not distorting them and calling them names. Obama often resorts to these behaviors, and says nothing while his allies do the same. Obama has worked with Republicans, and also demonized them. Civility says he should stop the latter; it says nothing about the former. Again, it's the responsibility of all of us to protest incivility, particularly if -- like Obama -- we've prominently advocated civil debate. Not just in the opponent's party, but in your own as well.