Monday, June 01, 2009

Obamas Shining

"Pay them no mind, darling. Tonight is about you and me."

DEJA VU. Chalk it up to the Monday morning blues. When I first saw the coverage of the Obamas' "Date Night" in New York, I didn't feel especially negative about it beyond wondering if it wasn't courting some resentment among voters who are being hard hit by the recession. On Fox & Friends, Tucker Carlson spoke for the elite northeastern conservative media by dismissing this concern out of hand and confining his own complaints to the delays and inconveniences the First Couple's night out occasioned the better sort of Manhattanites. Video clips like the one above, though, made it clear that the adoring Obamasses at the scene were perfectly delighted with the whole event, proving both me and Carlson wrong. The New York Post account seemed to close the deal:


 Two martinis, a swank restaurant, a Broadway show -- President Obama really knows how to treat a First Lady.

"I am taking my wife to New York City because I promised her during the campaign that I would take her to a Broadway show after it was all finished," the president said yesterday after touching down at JFK for an intimate night on the town.

The first couple left their girls, Sasha and Malia, behind at the White House yesterday afternoon, taking two helicopters and a small Air Force jet to make their way to Manhattan.

The Obamas were dressed to the nines -- Michelle in a sleeveless, black cocktail dress adorned with fringe, a pair of low, strappy heels and a turquoise clutch; and the president in a dark suit and white shirt, no tie.

The first stop was a meal at low-key, but elegant, Greenwich Village restaurant Blue Hill, which boasts farm fresh, locally grown dishes.

The Obamas were tucked into an out-of-the- way corner table where they enjoyed a multi- course feast specially prepared by the chef. They washed down the fine fare with wine, said a fellow diner, who also no ticed Michelle relaxing with a couple of martinis.

Photographers were kept blocks away be hind barricades for the first couple's privacy.

"We left them alone the entire night," said Blue Hill diner Rachael Levit, of Manhattan. "Nobody asked for autographs or took any pictures. They were laughing and talking and seemed like they had a genuinely good time."

But as the Obamas departed, the respectful diners, who had been screened by Secret Service personnel before they could enter the eatery, erupted into a round of applause.

Then it was up to Broadway, where they had tickets at the Belasco Theatre for "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," a play by August Wilson about a man coming to terms with the history of slavery.

"I'm nervous, excited, honored," said Andre Holland, who plays character Jeremy Furlow, before the show. "It's like in Shakespearean times, when the king would come to the show."

Although the play's up for a Best Revival Tony Award, the first couple got the biggest standing ovation of the night as theatergoers applauded and took photos of the dashing duo for 10 minutes before the show began.

The president gallantly guided his wife to their orchestra seats with his hand on the small of her back, while shaking hands with fellow theatergoers and smiling broadly. Due to security screenings, the curtain rose an hour late... [boldface mine]

I'm not going to make a big deal out of the fact that taxpayers footed the bill. Of course, we did. He's the president. That's not what I'm feeling grumpy and skeptical about. But I am feeling grumpy and skeptical. Like I'm being played at a surface level and subtly propagandized at a subliminal level.

Don't bother telling me I'm trying to read too much into it. Everything a president does is symbolic of something. The only question is whether the something is something obvious or something deeper. The press always thinks it knows, and maybe it does, but what they think is not always the story they choose to write and show.

One thing I know for sure because I'm not a complete moron is that this was not "an intimate night on the town" intended to "wow [the] First Lady with dinner and [a] Broadway show." There's nothing intimate about a flight to New York accompanied by two jets full of press, a motorcade through Times Square, a dinner that concludes with a standing ovation, and theater attendance that begins with a standing ovation from the audience and ends with the cast waxing nostalgic(?) about "when the king would come to the show." If the intent was to "wow" the First Lady, it was with yet another victory lap by a politician who has yet to quit campaigning for the office he already occupies. If he had a message for her, it wasn't an intimate "I love you truly and deeply regardless of all that has changed in our lives; it was "Look at how truly and deeply everyone loves me -- and you by extension."

I know this sounds harsh, and there will be those who protest, "What's a President to do?" uh, plenty. If the American people had made the disastrous mistake of electing me president, I could think of a lot of ways of fulfilling the promise Obama purportedly made to Michelle. I wouldn't be at all shy about the expense. If it was just for her, I would make it all just for her. I would bring New York and Broadway to the White House -- the restaurant setting, the chefs, the waiters for a dinner for two. And I would invite her favorite Broadway performers to put on a show just for the two of us. Because a president can do that. They keep telling us he's creative -- a writer, right? -- and it's the creative, personal touches that melt a woman's heart. The mystery beforehand, the stopping of the world's outside clock on her behalf, the total attention to pleasing her for a change, to living up to her: for example, I'd have worn a tie, probably a black tie. For the one person who, more than any other, merits my determination to put my best foot forward.

But this wasn't that. It was a vulgar exercise in showing off. The First Lady "dressed to the nines" certainly, but the president was attired only in expensive casual, as if... what? He'd already had a long day and if it was going to be even longer, he at least had the consolation of ditching the tie from his workaday suit? Or was it for all of us? He was tieless because he could be? Because the bright lights of New York impress him less than a roomful of foreign dignitaries or network news stars? Because the whole exercise was maybe just a little beneath him? Wall Streeters dress up for dinner and a show, and so does his own wife, but not the One? Does he, in fact, find it all a little bourgeois and boring?

There are signs that this is so. I'm well aware the Post article is at pains to tell us about all the smiling that was going on, and to prove it they led off their photo gallery with this shot:

"We've got matching outfits. Cool."

But that's a picture they knew was being taken. In the course of the evening that followed, Post photographers took other more candid snaps as well:

"It's worth it. Trust me. I'll explain later."

Having fun were they? Or, in their deliberate black attire, were they summoning a subliminal memory of black-coated Robespierre grimly condescending to the Parisian aristocracy during the French Revolution? Amping up for the Directorate and the Terror. The third photo in the series is from the "show" they attended. I certainly can't read faces like the fictional protagonist of "Lie to Me," but I sure wish I could. The expressions are ambiguous, but they don't look at all to me like, "I've just had a glorious night of personal celebration capped by a show that makes me grateful just to have seen so much talent on an American stage."

Or would it make you, personally, feel better to have your president attend a show that reminds him just how pissed off he is about all the injustices his country has subjected him to -- right before he leaps back into his limo, his "casual" jet, and Marine One en route back to the White House?

You think "pissed off" is overstated? You probably do. Do you know anything about the play he picked -- above all other candidates for his celebratory night on the town with his beloved wife?

"Can you believe it? Rahm wanted us to see Jersey Boys?"

I'm no expert on this dramatic work, but here's how Wikipedia characterizes it:

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is the second in a series of August Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle, which chronicled the struggles and lives of African-Americans in the 20th century. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is set in the second decade of the 20th century and chronicles the lives of a few freed African-American slaves in the North. The play deals with issues of race and reconstruction, but also more broadly examines finding your personal identity and finding your way in life.

Well, why not? Even we have speculated that President Obama has more than a passing interest in Reconstruction, and that's fine, of course, except that I can't help wondering what the Obamas' facial expressions mean in the context of what Wiki reports about the final scene in the play:

Scene Five- In the final scene Loomis and Zonia leave the boardinghouse as it is Saturday. Bertha tells Mattie that all she needs in life is love and laughing- which they all start to do. Then Martha Pentecost [Loomis] enters with Selig looking for Loomis and Zonia. Loomis reenters with Zonia and he recounts the last decade of his life; his search for her and the heartache it has caused him. Martha tells him that she has moved on with her life because she couldn’t wait for him any longer. Martha also reveals that she had Bynum put a binding spell on her and Zonia and that is why they have come to find each other. Loomis goes into a rage and pulls out a knife. He denounces his Christian background and slashes his chest. The stage directions read “Having found his song, the song of self-sufficiency, fully resurrected, cleansed and given breath, free from any encumbrance other than the workings of his own heart and the bonds of the flesh, having accepted the responsibility for his own presence in the world, he is free to soar above the environs that weighed and pushed his spirit into terrifying contractions.” He leaves and the play ends with Bynum yelling “Herald Loomis, you shining! You shining like new money!” [boldface mine]

I admit, as a writer, I'm not reassured by the quoted stage direction. To me it sounds like a play that's meant to be read, not performed, which also suggests that it's as self-consciously symbolic and pretentious as all the stuff that got Tennessee Williams so roundly trashed by critics in the final two thirds of his career. But what concerns me more is the question of what exactly about this play means so much to the President of the United States that he preferred seeing it, all things considered on this night of all nights with his wife -- with the American people looking raptly and adoringly on -- to the many other Broadway productions that are actually joyful, celebratory, spectacular, and, well, conducive to fooling around with your wife when the two of you get back home.

Or is "shining like new money" an aphrodisiac I've never heard about? So much hotter when you have a faithless partner, a self-inflicted slash in your chest, and a repudiation of Christianity fueling your allegiance to the flesh.

I'm also concerned that nobody but me has any concerns of this sort.

But don't mind me. As I said, it's probably just the Monday morning blues.

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