“Fortunato’s thousand blows I bore as well as I could, but when he insulted I swore revenge.”
With that forbidding line, Edgar Allan Poe warns of what’s to come Cask of Amontillado, the horror writer’s 1846 short story set in an unnamed Italian town during Carnival season. It’s about a man out to take deadly revenge on an accomplice who robbed him. This is the harshest possible warning: Confrontation is one thing, but a perceived insult, snub, or slight can have far worse consequences.
Things seemed raw between Kevin McCarthy and Joe Biden during the State of the Union, although the president congratulated the California Republican on his election as speaker of the House, there may be a reason for that. A few weeks ago, The Washington Post McCarthy noted how he felt insulted, insulted and humiliated when Biden failed to mention him in his 2021 inaugural address. McCarthy apparently told this story with some frequency. On that January day, McCarthy, then the House minority leader, was just a few yards from the newly sworn-in president and could see Biden’s teleprompter well enough to read the words before he spoke. He saw the list of people Biden wanted to thank in his role – “Speaker Pelosi.” “Leader Schumer.” “Leader McConnell.” But it was. Biden didn’t thank “Leader McCarthy.”
It was two years ago, a European war, an epidemic and an impeachment. But, according to postMcCarthy couldn’t let it go and wanted to make Biden pay for it.
If you are an anthropologist sent to study the culture of Washington, DC, count this as a conflict of native life that you will write in your journal. Elected officials, who must, of course, have skins as thick as alligators wearing Kevlar, can be frostbites and whiners at times. I wrote a book about John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, sometimes friends as young congressmen in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But Nixon’s unbridled anger at the Kennedys—their glamour, charm, wealth, and the way elites admired them—repelled the boy. Of hardscrabble parents in Whittier, Calif., real troublemakers. Politicians are called liars, scoundrels, thieves and fools. But some snobs, intentional or not, that make them feel unimportant can be deeply motivated and have a way of influencing history.
I can think of little else of this kind, real or perceived.
Famously, at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, President Barack Obama teased the star Apprentice For the crusades that gave birth to him. From the podium, Obama noted that he had inadvertently produced his lengthy 1961 birth certificate in response to false and fabricated claims that he was not a native-born American citizen and thus ineligible to be elected president.
“Now, I know he’s taken a bit of a beating lately,” Obama deadpanned about a tuxedo-clad Trump, “but nobody’s happier, nobody’s prouder to put this birth certificate thing to rest than Donald.”
Obama, looking with obvious disdain at the man sitting frozen at his desk, added: “And it’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the important things — like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened at Roswell? And Biggie and Where’s Tupac?”
Some believe, with good reason, that this public outcry ignited some of the rich kids who grew up in Queens who wanted to make it big in Manhattan’s boom. They believe it was the catalyst that transformed Trump’s decades-long and fictional presidential campaign into a real-life bid for the White House. If Obama’s joke had been about Trump being rich or his hair, Fred Trump’s baby could have been something like that. But being treated like an irrelevant conspiracy nut was intolerable.
There have been other snubs that have made history.
There is Bobby Kennedy’s ill-fated attempt to oust Lyndon Johnson from his brother’s 1960 presidential ticket. Jack Kennedy offered LBJ the vice presidency during a private meeting at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles—a risky move that threatened to alienate northern liberals and labor unions who despised the Texan. This was before he became a civil rights president and architect of the Great Society. Hoping to get Johnson to abandon the offer, Bobby insists on meeting with him that morning. As a Senate staffer, he crossed swords with Majority Leader LBJ. But it turned a frosty relationship into a cold war that would last until RFK’s assassination. To make matters worse, Bobby not only tried to drop Johnson from the ticket but suggested that he become chairman of the Democratic National Committee instead. The consolation prize was not well received.
Johnson rejected the idea on the spot but correctly realized that Bobby was freelancing for a bit and the nominee had not sent him to withdraw the offer. (The extent to which Jack rejected Bobby’s behavior that day remains a matter of some debate.) The Lyndon-Bobby rivalry would shape much of the country’s politics in the 1960s, from riots to poverty in Vietnam.
President Johnson also had his own snubbing.
To bring excitement to the 1964 convention in Atlantic City, LBJ decided to model the vice presidential nomination after the Miss America pageant, which was held annually at the same venue in the same New Jersey vacation spot. The president planned to boardwalk two potential VPs, Senators Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey, both Midwestern liberals who desperately wanted the post. Humphrey, like Johnson, lost the 1960 Democratic nomination to JFK and would run for president several more times. At Johnson’s last-minute signal, the choreography went off, with one of the two Minnesota senators then naming the other hopeful.
McCarthy, discovering Johnson’s eccentricity prematurely, killed it. Imagining himself in LBJ’s scripted role for “final runner-up”—a depressing title given to the young woman—was too much for the proud McCarthy. He withdrew his name from the race, calling Johnson’s scheme “deplorable”.
Four years later, in 1968, McCarthy shocked the nation and announced his challenge to Johnson’s unopposed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. McCarthy’s opposition to the Vietnam War was a major factor that propelled him into the race. Still, that 1964 snub made it personal, and McCarthy’s surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary helped Johnson abandon his bid for a second term.
I can think of other snubs that have made history.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich sat in the back of Air Force One in 1995 on a boisterous flight to Israel for the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated after signing the U.S.-brokered Oslo Accords with Palestine. After the trip, Gingrich addressed a breakfast full of reporters—a regular Sparling breakfast hosted by the Washington bureau chief. Christian Science MonitorGodfrey Spurling Jr. – that he hated the bad seats and having to exit through the back of the plane hoi polloi. And even more so when the speaker was unlovable New York Daily News ran a front-page cartoon depicting Gingrich as an angry child.
President Bill Clinton said he was “sorry and surprised” that Gingrich took offense at being placed in the back of the plane and not being asked to come forward to discuss the budget conflict with the president. Gingrich said the snub was purposeful and insulting: “All the presidents we’ve flown with were before us. All the presidents we’ve flown with have spoken to us at length.”
Gingrich later admitted that this was a factor in the resulting government shutdown.
Going back further, in 1977 the new House Speaker, Tip O’Neill, asked his family to sit with him at Jimmy Carter’s pre-inaugural ceremony. Family means everything to Massachusetts polls. He and Carter, each assuming their new offices at the same time, should have a good working relationship in the interests of Democrats and the country. Word came back that staying with the family meant tipping the other O’Neills back down the hall, away from the top VIPs. Afterwards, the speaker referred to Carter’s top aide, Hamilton Jordan, as “Hannibal Jerkin.” (I later worked for both Carter and O’Neill.)
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York never cared for Bill Clinton. The scholar-politician who made a career studying poverty and family formation opposed Clinton’s welfare reform ideas and had no love for Arkansans when she ran for president in 1992. Less than two weeks after the 1993 presidential inauguration, the time The magazine ran a column by Michael Cramer that began with Moynihan lamenting, “’Not since November,’ Moynihan says sadly. ‘Not even a call. Not from the President or anyone in his ranks. I thought someone would have communicated by now. I just don’t understand.’ “
When Cramer sought Clinton’s response, the situation took a turn for the worse. “Big deal,” a top administration official told Cramer. The source slammed the senator: “Moynihan was supportive [Senator] Bob Kerry during the primaries. He’s not one of us… The gridlock is broken. Everything is democratic now. If we have to, we’ll pass it.” The health care law had to go through Moynihan’s committee, and HillaryCare didn’t roll. duration.
It’s unclear how much McCarthy’s Inauguration Day snub of Biden will affect the future of the two men’s relationship with everything the country needs. His excellent salute to win the speaker’s chair may help. But the president will surely find it difficult to treat the upcoming House GOP investigation into his son Hunter with equanimity. With all the differences between Biden and McCarthy over the debt ceiling, Ukraine, taxes, antitrust and abortion, could a two-year-old snub really matter to these two men and to us? An anthropologist would note that it was earlier.