Politics & Policy

Books and Covers

On “looking liberal” and “looking conservative”

Editor’s Note: Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger is now available, here. The book has six chapters, and we are running a piece from each of them. The below piece is from Chapter 4, “Issues and Essays.” It was published in our January 27, 2014, issue.

When we were in kindergarten — if not before — we were taught that you can’t judge a book by its cover.  Which is true. Or rather, you can’t necessarily judge a book by its cover. Often, it is an error to do so. Related is an old expression, usually attributed to Oscar Wilde: “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”

Well and good. But I remember something I heard a writer say on television, many years ago. (It wasn’t Oscar Wilde. It may have been Harlan Ellison.) He said, “If the cover shows a strapping woman amid the stars, wearing a metallic brassiere and brandishing a light saber, chances are the book is science fiction.”

Which brings me to “Pajama Boy” — the young man pictured in a pre-Christmas ad touting Obamacare. The ad said, “Wear pajamas. Drink hot chocolate. Talk about getting health insurance.” That’s what the young man was doing (we could assume). The ad came courtesy of Organizing for Action, a group dedicated to promoting President Obama’s agenda.

By the way, leaving “action” aside, I have become allergic to the word “organizing.” It’s a fairly innocent word, but I remember what the actress Susan Sarandon said, after Obama was elected: “He is a community organizer like Jesus was, and now we’re a community and he can organize us.”

It was said throughout the conservative universe that Pajama Boy “looked liberal.” Others prefer the word “progressive” (including “progressives” themselves). George F. Will wrote a year-end column, saying, “In 2013, the face of progressivism became Pajama Boy, the supercilious, semi-smirking, hot-chocolate-sipping faux-adult who embodies progressives’ belief that life should be all politics all the time — come on, everybody, spend your holidays talking about health care. He is who progressives are.”

The word “metrosexual” was used a lot. The editors of Investor’s Business Daily spoke of the “hipster metrosexual cradling cocoa in his red onesie” (a kind of pajamas). Friends of the model felt obliged to protest his robust heterosexuality.

There was another issue, too — sort of in the shadows. In the first hours of the general mockery, I was concerned that anti-Semitism might enter into it. Either the mockery would include some anti-Semitic stuff or the mockery would be interpreted, by someone, as anti-Semitic. Sure enough, the Forward published an article headed “Obamacare ‘Pajama Boy’ Controversy Wrapped in Anti-Semitism.”

The writer, Jay Michaelson, said,

Yes, Virginia, Pajama Boy is a member of the tribe. Look at him. Pale Ashkenazic skin, Jew-fro’d black curls, Woody Allen specs. Even the smart-ass expression on his face screams of the Wise Son from the Passover Seder.

Parenthetically, the model himself is one Ethan Krupp, an Organizing for America [actually, Action] staffer who is, in fact, Jewish. But whether Krupp himself is circumcised or not, Pajama Boy is semiotically Jewish, even stereotypically so.

I couldn’t help thinking of a strange fact: The model/staffer shares a name with the famous, and infamous, arms-manufacturing family in Germany. Hitler once told the lads at Nuremberg, “In our eyes, the German boy of the future must be slim and slender, fast as a greyhound, tough as leather, and hard as Krupp steel.”

At the very moment America was contemplating Pajama Boy, we were also contemplating Duck Man, i.e., Phil Robertson, the star of the Duck Dynasty reality series. He had made controversial remarks about homosexuality in a magazine interview. He could not be more unlike Pajama Boy in his appearance. He looks like a combination of prophet and backwoodsman, with long hair, bandana, and long gray beard. He looks like the homespun Christian conservative he is — unless he looks like a member of Willie Nelson’s entourage, not unfamiliar with marijuana. And I could easily see him manning a booth at the Ann Arbor Art Fair (whose official atmosphere, come to think of it, is marijuana).

Ann Arbor, Mich., is the town I grew up in. I occasionally tease it in my writings, usually describing it as “a small citadel of the Left.” When Pajama Boy splashed all over the media, a colleague of mine asked me, “Is that what the people in Ann Arbor looked like?” Yes and no. When I was growing up, the Left was scruffier, grungier, dirtier. They would not have wanted to be clean-cut, looking like a Boy Scout, churchgoer, or Republican.

Confronted by hippie hecklers, ol’ George Wallace said, “They know a lot of four-letter words — but there are some they don’t know. Like W-O-R-K and S-O-A-P.” Campaigning for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, the countercultural types did not want to scare the Middle American types. So they shaved and showered, adhering to the slogan “Get clean for Gene.”

The Left is very clean today, I find — scrubbed, slicked, and affluent. I was back in Ann Arbor over Christmas, and saw a store with the (typically) pretentious name of My Urban Toddler. That’s the spirit now.

Is it possible to “look liberal” or “look conservative”? “At 50,” George Orwell wrote, “everyone has the face he deserves.” I don’t know about that. And I know that looks can be deceiving, including in a political sense. There are some who “look conservative” but aren’t, and vice versa. Let me remind you of Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell (and George W. Bush). He looked like a right-winger, a bruiser, a bull of a man. But he consistently took unconservative, or Powellesque, positions.

William Safire, the late columnist, who liked to have fun, had fun with Armitage’s appearance. One time, he wrote, “The heavyset, bullet-headed Armitage is known for having a good head on his shoulders. (That is primarily because he has no neck, but as they say on the seventh floor of Foggy Bottom, better neckless than feckless.)”

I’ll occasionally see pictures or videos of Ed Schultz, the MSNBC host. If he were an actor, he could be cast as a right-wing blowhard: stocky, slightly sweating (maybe). Instead, he is a left-wing blowhard. But, according to Wikipedia, he used to be a conservative, so maybe his looks are left over from that period? Very different in appearance is Schultz’s MSNBC colleague Rachel Maddow. She has the same views, but her looks are more classically liberal. (I hasten to say that classical liberalism, as represented by Locke et al., has nothing to do with MSNBC or its hosts.)

To me, Mussolini looks like the ultimate fascist thug. He is almost a cartoon. Do I think this because I know he was, in fact, a fascist thug? Stalin looks like a genocidal monster, with that menacing black crop of hair, and those “yellow tiger’s eyes,” as David Pryce-Jones says. But I imagine some of his victims looked like him, too, especially in Georgia. Mao probably looked like a number of his victims as well — although they would have been thinner, having to live, or not live, under Mao’s policies.

When I look at Lincoln, I think I am looking at the soul of moral leadership. The visage matches the man. But could a bank robber have looked like that? Probably so. (And there are Americans even now who look at Lincoln and see a war criminal and tyrant.)

In the Reagan ’80s, some Republicans made sport of Tip O’Neill, the Democratic speaker of the House. They said he looked like the liberal welfare state: bloated, boozy, creaky, past it. Our guy, Reagan, was one year older, but he looked more like the brighter, healthier future. Plenty of bloated and boozy types, however, were on our side.

All through the 2004 presidential campaign, James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal referred to John Kerry, the Democrats’ nominee, as “haughty” and “French-looking.” This was an effective taunt. One of my favorite politicians looks like a French aristocrat, and why not? He is Pete du Pont, or Pierre S. du Pont IV. When they were running for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination, George Bush — George Herbert Walker Bush, no peon — made use of du Pont’s pedigree.

William F. Buckley Jr. was hosting the first debate of the season. Du Pont was jabbing at Bush for a lack of specifics on arms control. “We’re waiting for details,” he said, “and we’re hearing generalities.” Bush said, none too nicely, “Pierre, let me help you.” Du Pont has never been known as “Pierre,” only “Pete” — but Bush played the French card (underhandedly, I think). Later, David Broder, the “dean of the Washington press corps,” wrote that the “night belonged to Bush — the man who dared to call a Pierre a Pierre.”

In the 2008 Republican primaries, Mike Huckabee got a lot of mileage out of saying that Mitt Romney “looks like the guy who laid you off.” I thought this was cheap populist nonsense. To me, Romney looked like a guy who could make an economy hum, and create jobs for the sadly unentrepreneurial like me. During his years in the national spotlight, Romney was a kind of Rorschach test: heartless capitalist to some, model citizen and leader to others.

To ask it again, is it possible to look conservative or look liberal? I think it is — but I could not give hard-and-fast descriptions. I’m a little like Justice Stewart and pornography (“I know it when I see it,” he said). Are conservatives white and fat? Some are, sure, but so is Michael Moore, the leftist documentary-maker. Are there people who look like Pajama Boy in liberalism? Yes, lots of them, but they exist in conservative think tanks, too, and on the staffs of conservative congressmen. Thank heaven.

Years ago, I found out that an acquaintance of mine was conservative, or conservative-friendly, and you could have blown me down. An art critic with a ponytail and a dozen other liberal giveaways — except those “giveaways” were misleading. What a glorious discovery. More often than kindergarten teachers would like to admit, or should admit, you can judge a book by its cover. The glorious discoveries make life more interesting (and so, by the same token, do the inglorious ones).


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