It’s not as big or as pressing an issue as Afghanistan, but on the home page, I conclude the recent news of aspiring reality television stars crashing a White House state dinner provides a good opportunity for President Obama to start talking about our national culture, and the destructive impact of widespread, obsessive, reckless, narcisstic pursuit of fame, driven in large part by the growth of reality television.
I can hear the objections now: Jim, he epitomizes a lot of the problems you’re talking about.
I bounced the idea off several of the smartest Republicans I know, and want to share the assessment of two of them. Mary Matalin is one of the sharpest political consultants and a woman who knows a thing or two about politicians venturing into the culture wars, and she contends Obama no longer has cultural authority to speak on our national values, if he ever had it:
I think a 21st century cultural arbiter is a good concept to explore, but not in the same breath as Barack Obama. As we say in Louisiana, “you got the right string, baby, but the wrong yoyo.”
Maybe there was a time for him, but it is long past. First, where do you get he is so respected? He is dramatically and demonstrably polarizing and the last poll I looked at relative to his credibility, 59% of Independents said he just says what he thinks you want to hear.
Further, he (and most of his people) lack the fundamental ingredient of a cultural leader: humility. They all exude hubris and arrogance and condescension, the opposite of what compels people to cultural civility.
They posses the most repulsive of characteristics in any time, but the most demanded of troubled ones: that is they are consistent and shameless hypocrites: no unkind word for the Rangels of their party after slandering Republicans as cretins of corruption; they rail themselves hoarse about mean spirited hate-mongering where none exists, while their base of vile bloggers are as close to certifiably sociopathic as ever a movement could possess; their leadership consists of blaming others, creating straw men and endless other forms of irresponsibility and buck passing.
Politically and morally, he has missed so many opportunities to do the right thing, say the right thing, so often said the exact wrong thing (the Cambridge police comes to mind, among others) that entry into the cultural arena now would be seen as what it would be: opportunism.
More generally, he has broken all his “cultural” promises: more accountability, transparency, responsibility; there is irrefutably less of all and dangerously so.
And then of course, there is all that protestation of American Exceptionalism. He doesn’t believe in it, by his own loud admission, so could hardly be attractive as the beacon of our inner greatness.
Ostensibly off point, but think about it: a significant contributor to our coarsened culture is, ironically, political correctness. No one can be judged; there cannot even be the kind of subtle community disapproval that kept the parameters of civilization in place as recently as a generation ago. And of course, the scourge of PC can and should be laid directly at the feet of liberals, for whom Obama reigns as King.
There is a differentness between hero desire and celebrity gawking. We look up to heroes; we cannot look away from the train wreck that constitutes celebrity seeking. I think we desperately want and need real heroes and are almost daily disappointed (Tiger Woods); our attraction to creepy celebrities is a distraction from turbulence and an affirmation of our own goodness in comparison. We do still admire meritorious celebrity, even of the TMI 21st Century version (America’s Biggest Losers).
I suppose you will chalk up my vehemence to his epitomizing what you are seeking to my partisanship, but I assure it is not. I feel betrayed, actually, by such great promise being squandered for such cheap return.
It is indeed time to set aside childish things, but he is sadly a man-child.
My candidate for what you describe is Mitch Rapp or John Galt.
A lot of those objections are good points. My primary counter-point would be to think of the audience we would want this speech to influence, and which figures have credibility with them. You or I or Miss Manners can make this argument and they or we will be largely ignored, while Obama may be able to nudge people to rethink their behavior.
Few writers delve more deeply into the American character than Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, and she, too, questions whether Obama is the right man for this message:
“One wonders first why he would be best person on this subject,” she says. “In the past such critiques and commentary and guidance have tended to come from ministers, artists, priests, novelists and essayists. In the 20th century, figures such as Billy Graham, H.L. Mencken in his way, Scott Fitzgerald too. But none of our artists and pastors have the big microphone a president now has. In fact, novelists and artists barely register. Why is another question, but think of what Sinclair Lewis would have done with the Main Street that produced Balloon Boy’s father.”
Beyond that, there is the question of stature; Noonan notes, “People won’t mind if a president of some years, experience and hard won perspective — an Eisenhower, a Reagan — weighs in on some aspect of our national character, which is what we’re talking about. But a new president who is young and still not fully understood by the American people? That might be… complicated.”
But she homed in on why Obama might be an effective messenger: “If the emphasis of the speech were on personal dignity, an aspect of character, that might be helpful from Obama,” Noonan says. “He seems to put a high premium on his conception of personal dignity. This might be helpful for the young, and start a new conversation. It could serve the president well also.”