Why you should care
This week’s crisis is not one of civility, but of Maxine Waters.
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Our national institutions are aflame and morals are shredded, Washington cries out. For evidence, let us point not to emboldened white supremacists nor immigrant children separated from their parents nor relentless attacks on the free press, but rather to the true demise of civility — the loss of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ God-given right to some Red Hen cheese boards and pesky Maxine Waters’ subsequent declaration of war on Trumpers’ taste buds.
“Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up. And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere,” the California congresswoman told a rousing rabble of Los Angeles constituents this weekend, after Sanders was denied service at a Virginia restaurant, the Red Hen.
President Donald Trump responded with his typical subtlety, tweeting that Waters is “an extraordinarily low IQ person,” the “Face of the Democratic Party” and, ominously, to “be careful what you wish for.” Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called for her to apologize, and a few Republican lawmakers motioned for her to resign. Democrats scrambled too, as everyone from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi distanced themselves from the uncouth phrasing, joining op-eds and social media outcries declaring the end of civility in politics as we know it.
This is neither a crisis in democracy, as The New York Times declared, nor a crisis in manners, as the Washington Post suggested in its “Let the Trump team eat in peace” editorial, which forgot to include the word “cake.” No, dear reader, this is a crisis of nothing more than Maxine Waters simply being Maxine Waters, somebody she has been for 79 years as a former factory worker, telephone operator, assistant teacher, assemblywoman — and persistent left-wing thorn in the side of the past five presidential administrations, earning her the nickname Kerosene Maxine.
Indeed, her uncivil agitation of presidents is only as new as feathered bangs and flannel. Waters started early, labeling George H.W. Bush a “racist” in July 1992, just a year after she had given up the California legislature for the U.S. House of Representatives. Following the Rodney King verdict, she declared Bush’s condemnation of Los Angeles rioters to be racially motivated while describing the unrest that left 63 people dead as “rebellion” and a “spontaneous reaction to a lot of injustice.” To the Los Angeles Times, she added: “I maintain it was somewhat understandable, if not acceptable.”
At times she was a stark defender of Bill Clinton, calling his impeachment “a Republican coup d’état,” even as today she calls for Trump’s ousting. But she also fought him so valiantly on welfare reform and tough-on-crime policies that Clinton had to visit her Los Angeles district and offer her husband an ambassadorship to the Bahamas to mollify her. (Her husband, former NFL player Sidney Williams, was also wrapped up in a years-long ethics probe into whether Waters abused her power during the financial crisis to help out a bank in which Williams was a substantial investor. She was cleared of wrongdoing.)
While many of her Democratic colleagues worried about appearing unpatriotic as the war in Iraq deepened, she remained a consistent and vocal critic of the George W. Bush administration and continued voting against further military action. Even fellow Democrat Barack Obama couldn’t escape her glare. With Black unemployment reaching the 15 percent mark in 2011, Waters decried the figures as “unconscionable” and criticized the first Black president for not doing enough to address Black poverty during the recession.
Even though unemployment among Black Americans has reached new lows of 6.8 percent under this administration, Trump has emerged as Waters’ greatest nemesis. And she, in turn, is a useful foil for the president, who has insulted her intelligence more than once. With Republicans eager to point to Democratic overreach, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani said on Fox News in May: “I challenge Maxine Waters to say ‘impeachment.’ Say it. Say ‘impeachment,’ sweetheart. Just say it.” She’s also tangled with the Cabinet before. Waters’ viral CSPAN duel with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin last year launched GIFs and remixes galore with the refrain: “I’m reclaiming my time.”
To her defenders, Waters is known by another nickname: Auntie Maxine, the forceful woman of color willing to call a spade a spade, and unwilling to suffer fools. It is not lost on them that Trump’s presidency was launched from the race-based “birther” lie about Obama’s birthplace, or that women of color frequently earn Trump taunts, from “wacky” Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson to “nasty” Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Given the last three years of Trump’s rhetoric — or the last 25 years of Waters’ — it’s time to stop dragging out the fainting couches, dear Washington, every time someone in politics says something uncivil. Just pass the cheese board.