Thug shots

Let’s think about the “T word.” Some of us are, after Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman reflected on the reaction to his NFL post-game rant. Sherman made the valid observation that many of the Twitter bigots tossed around the epithet “thug” as a substitute for the ultimate racist slur that even they have learned to avoid. But let’s use the word the way it was intended. The thesaurus lists synonyms like “ruffian” and “bully,” you get the drift, but let’s add one more: Rep. Michael Grimm, Republican congressman from New York.

His conduct on State of the Union night was boilerplate thuggery. How else would we describe Grimm responding to a question he didn’t like by threatening the TV reporter with, “Let me be clear to you, you ever do that to me again I’ll throw you off this f***ing balcony”? In case he didn’t make himself clear, he added: “You’re not man enough, you’re not man enough. I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.” Unfortunately for him, the camera was still hot. So it was stupid thuggery.

He apologized, only after an uproar, but I’ve thought about how I would have reacted. Actually, I didn’t have to think long, because anybody who has spent as much time as I have in TV newsbiz has run into that kind of situation. What I hopefully would have done in Congressman Grimm’s case is to have walked over to the balcony nearby. Then I would have asked the question again. It’s the only way to deal with that kind of pathetic intimidation.

The only excuse that might have gotten some sympathy is that he was in a foul mood because he’d been stuck in that absurd State of the Union ritual. Frankly, the time has come to put a stop to this foolishness. It’s not even mandatory, certainly not once a year. The Constitution just requires of a president that, “He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” These annual displays of forced camaraderie and hypocrisy mixed with political hostility are embarrassing and accomplish very little. Particularly when we add the responses from the various GOP splinter groups. Worst of all is the punditry and spinning pre and post, which are predictable and meaningless, unless you count the guy who threatened to toss the reporter over the balcony. And the American people are getting tired of all this. The ratings keep falling, as viewers vote with their remotes and opt for the Knitting Channel or whatever.

Anyway, the real action on Capitol Hill happens elsewhere. For a true display of thuggery, we could have watched James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing rip into Edward Snowden and what he called his “accomplices” (including the media, presumably) for revealing the various ways that the National Security Agency has spied on everybody’s everything. At one point, Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who has been leading the charge against the NSA, teed off on Clapper for his “culture of misinformation.” The DNI certainly wasn’t amused by that, but he probably was really apoplectic when he learned that Snowden has been nominated for a Nobel Prize.

There was little mention of all that in the State of the Union address. What there was afterward was a lot of discussion over whether Barack Obama’s presidency is waning. We in the media are shifting to stories about the campaign to choose the next president, with a Washington Post poll, for instance, that shows Hillary Clinton with a six-to-one lead among Democratic possibilities and no clear-cut Republican leader emerging. It’s early — we don’t know yet whether Michael Grimm will get in the race. With his anti-media thuggery, he’d become the instant front-runner.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast reporter, including 20 years at CNN.


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