Can journalists really show respect to Mitt Romney by kissing the behind of one of his aides on the streets of Warsaw?
But are reporters supposed to be nothing more than public relations specialists? Or should Americans expect their journalists to be iconoclastic, even rude, brazenly asking the pointed questions that those who would rule don't want to answer?
These aren't highfalutin rhetorical questions. At issue are real live human journalists. And an earthy reference to real live human political buttocks (hopefully kept out of sight, where the sun doesn't shine) near where Romney aide Rick Gorka keeps his wallet.
Here's what happened. Republican Romney was at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw on Tuesday as part of his European trip. The Romney people have been irritated with President Barack Obama's advisers working overtime trying to characterize the trip as one full of gaffes. And though Romney had done a series of one-on-one interviews with TV personality journalists on his trip, he hardly took a question from the regular beat reporters following him all over creation.
So as Romney started to leave the tomb, the reporters shouted questions, to which Mr. Gorka took great umbrage.
CNN: Governor Romney, are you concerned about some of the mishaps of your trip?
The Washington Post: What about your gaffes?
The New York Times: Governor Romney, do you feel your gaffes have overshadowed your foreign trip?
CNN: ... just a few questions, sir, you haven't taken but three questions on this trip from the press!
Gorka: Show some respect.
NYT: We haven't had another chance to ask a question.
Gorka (angry, breathing heavily): Kiss my ass. This is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect.
Some might think that's an odd way to show respect - kissing a politician's posterior at a national shrine - but no one took him up on the offer. You'd think the Romney people would know by now that American journalists are ethically prohibited from physically kissing political posteriors.
Instead, each year at the Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, elite journalists do more than smooch. They put on entire musical numbers, wearing makeup and fanciful costumes, and spend hours singing and dancing as they entertain the president and his first lady and much of the senior staff and members of the Supreme Court. The politicians clap and clap, and the journalists bow from the stage.
But what happened in Warsaw wasn't theater - it was a reality show. A few minutes after Gorka's outburst, he called reporters to apologize. By then it was too late. The video was seen by the multitudes, and Republicans were left to seethe, as they often do, about that darn "liberal media."
Just a few weeks ago, it was the Democrats' turn to seethe about that darn "conservative media" when a reporter from The Daily Caller dared ask questions of Obama that the president didn't want to answer about his plans to end deportations of certain illegal immigrants.
Before Obama was finished with his statement, Neil Munro of the conservative Daily Caller interrupted, asking, "Why do you favor foreigners over American workers?"
It devolved from there, with the president telling him it wasn't the time for questions. Munro said Obama had to take questions. "Not while I'm speaking," Obama said. Later, as the president walked off without answering questions, Munro asked, "What about American workers who are unemployed while you import foreigners?" But by then Obama had turned his back.
Munro was lectured severely on some editorial pages, condemned for being arrogantly out of line and not showing proper respect for the presidency and for journalism, although the old TV reporter Sam Donaldson made a career out of shouting at presidents.
One thing lost in the huffing and puffing is the fact that Obama doesn't much like being asked questions. For all the glowing media praise he received four years ago, he's notoriously shy when it comes to the give-and-take of a news conference.
Since his inauguration, Obama has had fewer news conferences per month than many of his predecessors. According to a study by Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University and director of the White House Transition Project, here is the breakdown:
Obama has averaged 1.81 news conferences per month, from the time he was elected until the end of January this year. George W. Bush had 2.2 per month, Bill Clinton had 2 per month and George H.W. Bush had a whopping 3 news conferences per month. In recent decades, only "the great communicator," Ronald Reagan, had fewer monthly news conferences than Obama, with 0.5 per month.
We'll never settle whether it is appropriate to shout loaded questions to a Republican casting himself as a foreign policy strongman at a European tomb, or whether it is equally appropriate to hector a Democratic president making a political move for Latino votes in the White House Rose Garden.
We're less than 100 days before the presidential election that will likely decide the fate of the nation. Each year, the federal government grows in size, and each year, the fortunes of an ever-increasing number of Americans are tied to that government. And so we've become a nation of competing tribes.
Republican voters don't much like seeing Republican politicians harassed by questions. And Democrats don't like seeing Democrat politicians harassed, either. But happily, there is an alternative to pointed questions. Reporters could sing and dance, like those who perform the musical skits in Washington.
But then, I guess it all depends on what the definition of smooching is.
John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.