“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.”
With that forbidding line, Edgar Allan Poe warns of what’s to come in The Cask of Amontillado, the horror writer’s 1846 short story set in an unnamed Italian city during carnival season. It’s about a man taking fatal revenge on an associate who had snubbed him. It’s the sternest possible warning: Confrontation is one thing, but a perceived insult, snub, or slight can yield far worse.
If things seemed raw between Kevin McCarthy and Joe Biden during the State of the Union, despite the president congratulating the California Republican on his election as Speaker of the House, there might be a reason. A few weeks back, The Washington Post noted how McCarthy felt snubbed, slighted, and belittled when Biden failed to mention him in his 2021 inaugural address. McCarthy apparently has 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 they were spoken. He saw the list of those Biden intended to thank in his introduction—“Speaker Pelosi.” “Leader Schumer.” “Leader McConnell.” But that was it. Biden didn’t thank “Leader McCarthy.”
That was two years, a European war, a pandemic, and an impeachment ago. But, according to the Post, McCarthy couldn’t let go of it and wants Biden to pay for it.
If you were an anthropologist sent to study the culture of Washington, D.C., count this as one of the contradictions of native life that you would write about in your journal. Elected officials, who are supposed to, indeed must, have skin as thick as a crocodile wearing Kevlar, can, at times, be snowflakes and whiners. I wrote a book about John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, at times friends as young congressmen in the late 1940s and early 1950. But Nixon’s endless resentment towards the Kennedys—their glamour, elegance, wealth, and the way elites admired them—drove the son of hardscrabble parents in Whittier, California, truly bonkers. Politicians are used to being called liars, scoundrels, thieves, and idiots. But some snubs, deliberate or not, that make them feel unimportant can be deeply affective and have a way of affecting history.
I can think of other such slights, real or perceived.
Famously, at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, President Barack Obama teased the star of The Apprentice for his birther crusade. From the podium, Obama noted that he had reluctantly produced his long-form 1961 birth certificate in response to the false and disingenuous claims that he was not a native-born American citizen and was thus ineligible to be elected president.
“Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately,” Obama deadpanned about a tuxedo-clad Trump, “but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald,”
Obama, looking with obvious disdain at the man sitting frozen out at his table, added: “And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter—like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”
Some believe, with good cause, that this public rebuke ignited something in the Queens-raised rich kid who wanted to make it big with the Manhattan swells. They think it was the catalyst that converted Trump’s decades-long and fanciful talk of a presidential run into a true-life bid for the White House. Had Obama’s joke been about Trump being rich or his hair, that’s something Fred Trump’s kid could have stomached. But being treated like an irrelevant conspiracy nut was intolerable.
There have been other snubs that made history.
There’s Bobby Kennedy’s ill-fated attempt to dump Lyndon Johnson from his brother’s 1960 presidential ticket. Jack Kennedy had offered LBJ the vice presidential slot 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 back then. This was well before he became the civil rights president and the architect of the Great Society. Hoping to get Johnson to relinquish the offer, Bobby insisted on meeting with him that same morning. As a Senate staffer, he had crossed swords with LBJ, the majority leader. But this turned a frosty relationship into a cold war that would last until RFK’s assassination. To make matters worse, Bobby not only tried to dump Johnson from the ticket but also suggested the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee instead. The consolation prize was not well received.
Johnson rejected the idea on the spot but rightfully perceived that Bobby was, to some degree, freelancing and had not been dispatched by the nominee to rescind the offer. (How much Jack condoned Bobby’s behavior that day remains a subject of some dispute.) The Lyndon-Bobby feud would shape much of the nation’s politics in the 1960s, from Vietnam to riots to poverty.
President Johnson also did 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 competition, which held its annual pageant in the same venue in the same New Jersey vacation spot. The president planned to arrive on the boardwalk in the company of two possible Veeps, Senators Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey, both Midwestern liberals who desperately wanted the post. Humphrey, like Johnson, had lost the 1960 Democratic nomination to JFK and would run for president several more times. On Johnson’s last-minute signal, the choreography went, one of the two Minnesota senators would then put the other hopeful’s name in nomination.
McCarthy, discovering Johnson’s grotesquery ahead of time, killed it. Imagining himself in the role LBJ had scripted for the “final runner-up”—the crushingly disappointing title given to the young woman who just misses the tiara and sash—was too much for the proud McCarthy. He withdrew his name from the competition, calling Johnson’s scheme “sadistic.”
Four years later, in 1968, McCarthy shocked the country and declared his challenge to Johnson’s heretofore uncontested bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. McCarthy’s opposition to the Vietnam War was the main factor propelling him into the race. Still, that snub from 1964 made it personal, and McCarthy’s surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary helped push Johnson to abandon his bid for a second term.
I can think of other snubs that made history.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich got seated in the back of Air Force One in 1995 on the somber flight to Israel for the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had been assassinated after signing the U.S.-brokered Oslo Accord with Palestine. After the trip, Gingrich told a breakfast full of reporters—the regular Sperling Breakfast run by the Washington bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor, Godfrey Sperling Jr.–that he hated the lousy seats and having to exit through the rear of the plane with the hoi polloi. The speaker was apoplectic and even more so when the New York Daily News ran a front-page cartoon picturing Gingrich as a toddler having a tantrum.
President Bill Clinton said he was “sorry and surprised” that Gingrich took offense at being put in the back of the plane and not being asked to come forward for a talk with the president about the looming budget conflict. Gingrich said the snub was intended and insulting: “Every president we had ever flown with had us up front. Every president we had ever flown with had talked to us at length.”
Gingrich later admitted it was one reason for the resulting government shutdown.
Going further back, the new House Speaker in 1977, Tip O’Neill, asked that his family be seated with him at Jimmy Carter’s pre-Inaugural gala. Family meant everything to the Massachusetts pol. He and Carter, each taking their new office at the same time, had to have a good working relationship for the sake of the Democrats and the country. The word came back that being with the family meant moving Tipand the other O’Neills to the back of the hall, away from the top VIPs. Henceforth, the speaker referred to Carter’s top aide, Hamilton Jordan, as “Hannibal Jerkin.” (I later worked for both Carter and O’Neill.)
The late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan never cared for Bill Clinton. The scholar-politician who had made a career of studying poverty and family formation opposed Clinton’s welfare reform ideas and had no love for the Arkansan when he ran for president in 1992. But when Clinton took office, it got worse. Less than two weeks after the 1993 presidential inaugural, Time magazine ran a column by Michael Kramer that began with Moynihan’s lament, “ ‘Not since November,’ Moynihan says sadly. ‘Not a single call. Not from the President or any of his top people. I would have thought someone would have gotten in touch by now. I just don’t get it.’ ”
When Kramer solicited a Clinton response, things got worse. “Big deal,” a top administration official told Kramer. The source slams the senator: “Moynihan supported [Senator] Bob Kerrey during the primaries. He’s not one of us… The gridlock is broken. It’s all Democratic now. We’ll roll right over him if we have to.” Healthcare legislation had to go through Moynihan’s committee, and Hillarycare did not roll, period.
It’s unclear how much Biden’s Inauguration Day snub of McCarthy will affect the future of the two men’s relationship, with all that entails for the country. His nice salute for winning the Speaker’s chair might help. But the president will surely find it hard to treat the forthcoming House GOP investigations of 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 truly matter to these two men and us? An anthropologist would note that it has before.