Tuesday, April 21, 2009
I remember when Bette Midler announced she
didn't want to see Jagger's 50-year-old chest.
THE NOTHING. Some conservatives are getting grouchy about the meme of President Obama as "celebrity" rather than "commander-in-chief." Stuart Rothenberg of RealClearPolitics.com has a clever entry on this topic today:
If you run through the recent Obama topics (e.g., the garden, the dog), you would have to say the Obama family's life resembles a couple of episodes from "The Dick Van Dyke Show" of the 1960s. (In fact, episodes 7 and 130 of that series dealt with dogs in the Petrie household.)
Actually, some inside-the-Beltway friends of mine have been comparing Obama to Vincent Chase, the lead character in the popular (and extremely hip) HBO series "Entourage," which tells the story of a young actor (not yet president) who becomes something of a celebrity and his hangers-on.
His entourage includes his often-over-the-top brother, Johnny "Drama" Chase (played, some think, in the case of Obama, by Vice President Joseph Biden); Turtle, his chunky gofer-buddy from childhood who'll do whatever Vince needs done (played by Communications Director Robert Gibbs); his reasonably sane friend and manager, Eric (played by strategist David Axelrod); and his hyperaggressive, hyperkinetic agent, Ari Gold (played by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel).
The Ari Gold character, of course, is patterned after super-agent Ari Emanuel, Rahm's real-life brother. Ari Emanuel reps Mark Wahlberg, an actor and ex-rapper who is the executive producer of "Entourage"...
Is there a serious political angle to all of this Obama celebrity talk? There is.
In encouraging all of the celebrity coverage (journalists don't need much encouragement given the public's apparent unquenchable need for gossip), the White House surely is trying to keep Obama's appeal high among those Americans who really don't care a great deal about politics.
Being celebrities gives the Obamas a bigger audience, and probably deeper emotional commitments, than many politicians receive. Even if the economy doesn't recover completely and Obama's policy proposals stir up opposition, he could retain his popularity - and, with it, political clout on Capitol Hill - because of his (and his family's) celebrity coverage and appeal.
I understand the concern, but it's not mine. I think something else is happening here that's a great deal more worrisome than a 21st century PR tactic.
Let me explain. Right after college, I got a job working as a paralegal for an attorney who was also an entrepreneur in partnership with a businessman in South Jersey. Together, they bought struggling local businesses with an eye to turning them around and making profits where none seemed possible. The attorney was smart and I learned from him (he wanted me to go to law school), but the businessman was a revelation to me. His name was Harold Gunn, which couldn't have been more appropriate. He was six foot five, built like a defensive end, with a deep, gravelly voice that twanged just enough to remind you he was from Oklahoma and would never forget his roots. As a kid, he'd been dealt a bad hand. He went to the University of Oklahoma on a basketball scholarship that was terminated the day after his last varsity game. He wound up lifting crates at a Coca-Cola distributorship. But he had cagey eyes. He lifted the crates, to be sure, but he also took to observing the managers who ruled his life. He listened, learned, and one day decided that he could run the business better than they did. In a few years he was running the business. I first met him when my attorney boss bought a lumber yard and assigned me to work for Harold during its rehab. He immediately plopped me into the lumberyard as a yard hand. "You've got to learn what the business is before you can be of any use," he told me. I was willing. He liked that. My idea of a promotion from the yard was to be a truckdriver, which he approved with a knowing grin, and it was a couple of months later that he drafted me back into the office we yard hands called, not affectionately, "across the street."
He hadn't made any big moves yet beyond cleaning and repainting every inch of every building and fence. Like me, he'd been learning the business. On my first day with him, he gave me a tour, pointing out everything he had learned about the transaction flow and the people. He was on a first-name basis with everyone. He gave me a thumbail on all of them. "She's a clerk but she can handle a lot more." "He's been doing the same thing every day for years and can't change." "She's offended by anything different." (He did her face and voice in two seconds and shushed me when I laughed.) He explained his method. His first act had been to retire the old owner and name one of the longtime office employees as manager. To see what would happen in an environment where everyone knew their jobs were on the line. He showed me the manager working at his desk, visible through a glass partition. "What do you think he's doing in there?" Harold asked. The man was very very busy with scraps of yellow paper and the phone. Harold told me, "He spends all his time checking up on purchase orders and accounts payable. He's ducking."
"What's that?" I asked. Harold Gunn explained. "It happens a lot," he said in his booming undertone. "You put somebody in charge of something and they're so scared of the responsibility that they find a pile of busywork to bury themselves in. They're so busy being busy they can't possibly find the time to do their real job." Harold fired the manager a few days later. Just like that. He wasn't cruel about it, but he expressed no sense of guilt or sorrow either. If the business died, everybody would be out of a job. Bosses can't duck.
Early experiences like this are deeply formative. It was because of Harold Gunn that I wound up going to graduate business school rather than law school. I liked his directness. His ability to see the business coursing through even an antiquated body of habit and robotic employees. His sense that self-confidence had to be leavened with learning and observation, followed by purposeful action. His acceptance that risk was everywhere and not to be feared but met head on. He called that "gut punching." I'm sure he was a force to be reckoned with on the Sooner boards. Just as I'm sure he never ducked anything.
Since then, I've always been especially attentive to how people react to the experience of taking on a new job. And I've learned through decades of business experience that there are many different ways of ducking. In four years of consulting with various General Motors divisions, for example, I discovered the phenomenon of the divisional or business unit manager who follows his promotion with months of attending high-level meetings at other locations. His own direct reports never see him and know him only by phone, voicemail edicts, and memos. For some reason, he is afraid to inhabit his own office, the place where all the dread responsibility awaits him like a black hole of confrontation and possible exposure. Like Joseph Heller's Major Major, he is always out, never available, forever unreachable.
Major Major's character shows how an indifferent bureaucratic system can award a position of authority to someone who, being unwilling and/or unable to handle the position, can only fulfill his responsibilities by hiding from them (as shown by Major's using the window to enter and leave his office and not signing his real name to documents). Major Major doesn't want to be compared with Henry Fonda or to be in a position of authority; he just wants to live a "normal" life by mitigating the damage dealt by his ridiculous name, but bureaucracy forbids him. It's yet another Catch-22, as indeed is the arrangement by which any of the men may meet him: you can only see him when he's not in.
That's how President Obama's first hundred days strike me. Problems have been identified but, to my mind, misdiagnosed. He can't stop campaigning for a presidency he's already won say some. He's narcissistically in love with his own celebrity say others. What no one seems to be realizing is that his unending schedule of public appearances means that it's impossible for him to be doing any honest-to-goodness homework in learning the presidency. George W. Bush made few public appearances during his first hundred days. No doubt, he was chastened by his new responsibilities and spent days on end cosseted with advisers and subject matter experts who instructed him about the countries he demonstrated a poor grasp of during the campaign, the technical ins and outs of the U.S. legislative process, the functions of the cabinet departments and the key players in their permanent staffs, protocol, and the relationships among the various entities -- from the Joint Chiefs to the NSA to the Federal Reserve to the Council of Economic Advisers -- the president can use, manipulate, command, and negotiate with as circumstances require. And Bush had been a government executive before, as Governor of Texas.
How hard is it to imagine the Oval Office during the first few months of any presidency? Piles of briefing books loading down every flat surface. Wave upon wave of government professionals meeting with the president to explain what they do, how they do it, what their issues and sensitivities are, how the the requirements of the executive branch interact with the committees and lawmaking perquisites of the congress. Not to mention the battalions of State Department officials explaining the fine points of existing and contemplated treaties whose work goes on regardless of any change of personnel in the White House. What we call a "heads-down" time, when campaigning gives way to the sober realities of governance.
Except that we've all been a witness to Obama's schedule. When has he had any time for this kind of of homework? He's been on the run almost continuously since he took the oath of office. Bear in mind that for every hour of public appearance, there are probably three to four hours of preparation for that public appearance -- time with speechwriters, rehearsals, itinerary planning, travel time, and the necessary cool-down time afterwards. In less than a hundred days, he's been to Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, two prime-time press conferences, and, seemingly, a televised speech a day, as well as town halls in East Jesusville, USA, and podium affairs with audiences ranging from the CIA to Detroit auto executives. He's been so busy that he had his first cabinet meeting yesterday and has yet to meet with his various economic advisory entities. In fact, he's been so busy that most of the top-level positions in the Treasury Department that's running the U.S. economy (into the ground) are still unfilled and un-nominated.
When, in all of this frantic running around, has he had any heads-down time with those briefing books? He hasn't. That's why he's pumping out gaffes at a record rate. He doesn't know that Austrians don't speak "Austrian." He doesn't know that the Monroe Doctrine discouraged interference in Latin America. He doesn't know that the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred before he was born. He doesn't know that the United States is much older than the contemporary nation of Turkey. He doesn't know that running all over the world apologizing for everything every prior American president did and taking exception to only those charges which might be construed as personally aimed at him is unpresidential and nakedly vain. He doesn't know that condemning executive gatherings in Las Vegas costs jobs for working people in Las Vegas. He doesn't know that nominating one tax-cheating lobbyist after another to his administration is something that ordinary tax-paying citizens might come to resent. He doesn't know that tossing the first, most vital pieces of his legislative agenda into the voracious maw of congress to fashion as they see fit is a suicidal policy for any president, let alone a brand new one. The prevention of most such bonehead mistakes is sitting in those briefing books in the Oval Office. But he hasn't been there, has he? And if you really think he has, when has he? Tell me. As I write this, I'm pretty sure he's jetting somewhere else to meet publicly with someone else and say some more platitudinous words into the teleprompter before jetting back to have a photo-op with his dog and his daughters and his oiled-up pecs.
The celebrity strategy isn't an offensive gambit. It's the best his handlers can do. If you could see inside the White House staff, my bet is you'd see a gaggle of frustrated operatives who are concocting desperate workarounds for the fact that the President of the United States is running like hell from his real job.
The presidency is hard. That is, if you're trying to do a job for the American people rather than yourself.
Think of the pain. JFK couldn't even look at Marilyn during the Missile Crisis.
LBJ during the Vietnam War. He was smart, too, wasn't he?
Bush during the Iraq War. Yes, he suffered. Why do they all age so?
But if you never accept the responsibility in the first place, maybe you really can run and hide and pretend that it's all about you, not the country you swore that silly old oath to protect and defend. But in that case, maybe you were a dead man to begin with.
As a footnote, I'm bemused by the continuing consensus that Obama is "brilliant." Personally, I see no sign that he is chiefly or even largely about brains. If he had aced his SATs or LSATs, we'd have heard about it. (His prep school required taking the Merit Scholar exam; Obama isn't a Merit Scholar. Hmmm.) A man of ego such as he is couldn't resist letting us know if he had quantitative proof of a genius IQ. Ergo, he doesn't. He hasn't even released his college transcripts, let alone his standardized test scores. He's been playing a desperate role all his life -- that of the man who seems highly intelligent until you get past his mere manner to the substance (or lack of it) underneath. If he were smart, he wouldn't be afraid of those briefing books, and he'd know that policy-making isn't done on the fly as a subset of the speechwriting process.
But he is ducking those briefing books and making everything up off the top of his head as he goes along. Which is why I'm desperately afraid of him. I'm very much affrighted by the possibility that he's a nerdy overachiever who's finally overachieved himself into a situation he can't handle. And unfortunately, you can't duck your way through the presidency of the United States, no matter how much time you spend hiding on the road and on TV.