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(Don't) call me Madame

June 23, 2009 |  3:38 pm

Boxer A would-be Republican challenger is trying to capitalize on Sen. Barbara Boxer's now infamous reprimand of a general for addressing her at a hearing as "Ma'am" instead of "Senator." According to Chuck DeVore, Boxer's dressing down of Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh of the Army Corps of Engineers reflected liberal contempt toward the armed forces and was just what you'd expect from a Vietnam War protester.

But you don't have to be a Republican to be appalled by Boxer's display of pique, which has become must-gag TV on YouTube. "Do me a favor," Boxer told Walsh at a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "Could you say 'Senator' instead of 'Ma'am?' It's just a thing; I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it." To his credit, Walsh didn't reply: "Yeah, you did raise a lot of campaign contributions, Senator." Later, a Boxer aide said she and the general were pals.

Maybe, but Boxer had better forget about a campaign contribution from Miss Manners. As bloggers have pointed out, "Ma'am" is a term of respect comparable to "Sir," which is the way military officers address the president. It's also a contraction of "Madam," as in "Madame Secretary Hillary Clinton." (Walsh began his testimony by addressing Boxer as "Madam Chair.")  If "Ma'am" is good enough for the Queen of England, it ought to be good enough for Boxer. Yet it was the senator, not the monarch, who was not amused.

What's really galling about Boxer's snit is her refusal to give the general the benefit of the doubt. My mother taught her children that if someone knocks you over on a bus, assume it's an accident even if you suspect otherwise. There's no evidence that Walsh was deliberately belittling Boxer, but she flamed him anyway -- before TV cameras. That would be gauche even if Walsh were in the habit of referring to male senators by their proper title but not female senators. But Boxer didn't make that accusation.

Correcting the way someone addresses you almost always makes the other person uncomfortable. Reporters covering the Supreme Court cringed when the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist would correct a nervous lawyer who addressed him as just plain "Justice Rehnquist." Pointing out an error can be awkward even when you're demoting yourself -- which is why I no longer object to being called "Professor" by students who don't realize I'm a lowly adjunct instructor. Cardinal Newman (or maybe it was my mother) said that a gentleman never offends. Neither does a lady senator.

* Photo of Sen. Barbara Boxer by Rich Pedroncelli / AP

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