The Player and the President

Anyone watching Sunday's women's final at the U.S. Open tennis tournament was treated to an appalling display of temper on the part of Serena Williams.  At the beginning of the second set, Williams was judged to have hindered her opponent by shouting "come on" in the course of play.  The point, and, as it turned out, the game, was awarded to Williams's opponent, Samantha Stosur, who went on to win the match quite convincingly.

Not willing to leave well enough alone, Williams badgered the chair umpire, Eva Asderaki, during changeovers for what seemed like the rest of the match with remarks like, "Aren't you the one who screwed me over last time?" (apparently referring to her 2009 match versus Kim Clijsters at Doha, but at which Asderaki did not umpire).  "I promise you that's not cool," she pouted.  "That's totally not cool.  I totally despise you."  When Asderaki turned toward her during the exchange, Williams yelled, "Don't look at me.  Don't even look at me."  "You're a hater and you're just unattractive inside," she added, perhaps suggesting broader feelings of victimhood. 

Since the incident occurred, comment has been flying around the internet, much of it negative toward Ms. Williams.  Bloggers have referred to her as a "poor sport" and worse.  And some have suggested that her aggressive tirades are the product of a sense of racial resentment.

On the same day that this unfortunate incident occurred, another player on the national stage violated the ordinary rules of conduct with equally offensive behavior.  During the nationally broadcast 9/11 ceremony from New York, President Obama stood there in a Bill Clinton pose --  his nose perched high in the air -- seemingly unmoved even as others wept and bowed their heads in prayer.  It was a troubling and incongruous posture for the leader of a nation commemorating the worst terrorist attack in American history.

Obama's expression of remoteness and arrogant disdain was so palpable that the Wall Street Journal chose to feature it on the front page of the Monday edition.  In a striking photograph taken by Kristoffer Tipplaar, Obama is pictured with his nose at a 45-degree angle standing next to George Bush, whose face, furrowed from the effects of eight years in office, is bowed deep in prayer.  In the photo, former President Bush comes across as just the sort of humble and reverent man he is; Obama appears to hold himself above the proceedings, uncomfortable among the ordinary folk gathered for the occasion and deeply contemptuous of everyone there.

When it came time to speak, Obama read woodenly and haltingly, with no sense of emotion, from the prepared text on the teleprompter.  In what the Boston Gazette called "a study in contrasts," Obama delivered an unattributed and ill-prepared reading of Psalm 46.  The audience seemed dumbfounded as to the point of his selection, and Obama offered no clue as to his intent.  It was as if the teleprompter itself had recited Psalm 46 and then shut down, smugly remote and above it all.

Then George Bush rose and addressed the grieving families from the fullness of his heart.  Bush read from a letter by Abraham Lincoln to a mother who had lost five sons in battle.  Like Lincoln, who signed his letter "Yours, very sincerely and respectfully," Bush managed to convey his deep sense of respect and regard for the assembled 9/11 families.  It was surely no accident that those in attendance, including thousands of family members of the victims, broke into spontaneous applause at the conclusion of Bush's moving remarks.

While Obama fulfilled his responsibilities on 9/11, he appeared to do so ungraciously, as if he resented having to commiserate with ordinary folk.  Or perhaps he was upset at having to share the stage with George Bush.  Maybe he was simply uncomfortable at having to appear before an unvetted audience of ordinary citizens, men and women who were not hand-selected members of a public-sector union or students at a liberal university.  Perhaps he feared that this audience of real Americans would allow their real feelings toward him to be known.

No danger of that. The audience who gathered to commemorate 9/11 at Ground Zero was fully cognizant of the dignity of the somber occasion.  They had too much respect for the significance of the occasion to allow politics to enter into it (something that could not be said for Vice President Biden's remarks at the Pentagon that same morning).  The audience greeted the president with respect, and all observed the four moments of silence, marking the moments when the four planes crashed into the WTC towers, the Pennsylvania field, and the Pentagon, with reverent silence.  Most bowed their heads in sorrowful reflection, and many wept.

But president Obama did not.  He stood through most of the ceremony gazing off into the blue, as if he were some kind of grandee above it all.  No tears ran down his face, even as George Bush fought back his emotions and Laura Bush wept openly.  Obama's nonverbal message that day was, "I am not one of you.  The 'war on terror' that America entered on that fateful day is not my war.  I am superior.  I am privileged.  I can do as I wish, and no one can judge me."

That was the same message that Serena Williams conveyed on the tennis court later that day.  Her condescending tirade against the chair umpire and her unwillingness to apologize after the match -- and the pointed refusal of those in her box to applaud Samantha Stosur during the award ceremony -- conveyed the same sense of contempt for the most basic rules of conduct.

For whatever reasons -- perhaps a belief in their own superiority to other mortals, or perhaps because they share the same chip on their shoulders, because they have bought into the myth of racial victimhood, because they believe that their so-called disadvantaged background somehow exempts them from the ordinary rules of behavior -- the player and the president embarrassed themselves and their country on Sunday.  For the sake of the game and of our nation, one can only hope they set a better example in the future.

Jeffrey Folks is author of many books and articles on American culture, most recently Heartland of the Imagination (2011).