August 9, 2010
Obama's 'Cool'By Frank Burke
The Late Show with David Letterman.
Paul McCartney plays the White House.
Barack Obama's affinity for pop culture is emblematic of his administration's greater disconnect on programs, policy, and ideology from the mainstream of American society. Much of this has to do with the dichotomy between the terms "class" and "cool."
Though difficult to precisely define, personal class is one of those things of which it may be said (to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart) that "you know it when you see it." Its attributes include maturity, rational self-possession, a sense of the appropriate, generosity of spirit, and the humility that begets both charm and wit. Though frequently associated with childhood training and education, class knows no boundaries when it comes to gender, economic status, or even political persuasion. William F. Buckley, Jr. and Daniel Patrick Moynihan held opposing views, but both were possessed of great personal grace and were sincerely liked by even their opponents.
The American people have always valued class in their presidents and other leaders, and for good reason. Its highly personal characteristics are the prime means by which presidents are first observed and measured by foreign leaders, friend and foe alike.
This does not mean that individuals possessing "class" are immune from mistakes, miscalculations, or even personal misconduct. The way in which they handle adversity is perhaps what defines them most.
Despite multiple personal and political failings that we have become aware of in recent years, John and Jacqueline Kennedy possessed such respect for their country and themselves that they worked diligently at projecting the proper image to their fellow citizens and the rest of the world. The pride in American history reflected in his speeches and her restoration of the White House, their support of the fine arts, and their ongoing interaction with younger Americans presented an image that, though some might call it hypocritical, at least preserved us from the tabloid presidency that is the Clinton legacy, and increasingly Obama's.
It is impossible to conceive of John Kennedy presenting the British Prime Minister with a set of DVDs (even ones that worked) or the Queen of England with an iPod of his speeches. Contrast the Kennedy administration's approach to physical fitness for the nation's youth which stressed personal responsibility (the fifty-mile hike) with today's big-government solution (micromanaging the school cafeteria and excluding certain soft drinks).
From the inception of his campaign, Barack Obama was described by his younger supporters as "cool," and, as with an American Idol contestant, that was what caused many of them to vote for him. It likewise explains why he persists in trying to maintain the rock star/pop star image long past its useful life.
As it applies to culture, "cool" is largely associated with the personal journey we call "adolescence." A large part of that process involves a search for self and for independence and is characterized by the adoption and rejection of multiple role models, as well as rebellion against parental and other authority. "Cool" figures have always combined traits that not only typify but idealize this. James Dean's agonized "Rebel Without a Cause" was the spiritual ancestor of Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider." From Elvis' sideburns and hip movements to the Beatles' new sound, clothes, and haircuts to the grotesqueries of Madonna and Lady GaGa, the elements of novelty, non-conformism and rebellion are readily apparent. Frequently, the cool people try to project a "serious" side by involving themselves in causes that, therefore, appeal to their fans: No matter how egregious, if the star is for it, it's got to be cool.
Right from the start, the Obama campaign was designed and produced as a pop culture phenomenon. From the screaming, fainting fans to the walk-on endorsement of pop icons to the world tour replete with Las Vegas production values, the cult of celebrity was everywhere prevalent. Like many rock songs, the lyrics "Hope and Change" and "We are the ones we've been waiting for" were long on sentiment and short on substance. All of this was greatly magnified by the candidate's youth as opposed to John McCain's age. Barack was cool.
In the relatively short time since the election, reality has intruded.
In the world of pop, nothing breeds contempt like overexposure and, except for the most fanatical fans, it takes only a couple of bad albums or films to consign even the once-brightest star to the dismal world of Golden Oldies and Trivial Pursuit. The failed Stimulus Bill, the toxic Obamacare initiative, and so-called financial reform are a lot less sexy than Hope and Change and never even made the charts. It hasn't helped that the star's lead act, Reid and Pelosi, is on the far side of the generation gap.
Obama's juvenile behavior has not helped, either. Lecturing the Supreme Court at the State of the Union address -- publicly, and in their presence; insulting those who disagree with him; and looking for an "ass to kick" are more indicative of immaturity than rebelliousness. The perpetually cold, aloof persona, the self-indulgence, the incompetence and vacillation have made his ascendancy a distant memory.
Even in the world of pop culture, the best can sometimes reinvent themselves. After careers defined by "Top 40" hit songs, Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, and Carly Simon all turned to the classics of the Great American Song Book to interpret music written when their grandparents were young. Unfortunately, politics isn't showbusiness, and, as opposed to reinvention, we are left with the protracted adolescence of Barack Obama.
Cool is transient. Class endures.