There’s a picture floating around the Internet of President Bush weeping at a memorial service. One long tear streaks his cheek, and his thin lips are pressed together hard, as though trying to flatten a nickel. “I’ve got God’s shoulder to cry on,” is the line attributed to him. It’s a stock moment of “presidential” caring, a cliché of manly mourning. Just the single tear allowed to run the full length of one cheek, undabbed, lips pressed fortitudinously.
Apparently this captures what it means to be “presidential” at a time when the disastrous Bush presidency has left our economy ruined, our international reputation a shambles, NASA in the hands of people who don’t believe global warming is a threat, our soldiers mired in a “pre-emptive” war, the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg codes violated, the Justice Department gutted. Frankly, I could care less about the visuals. Yet to judge by the popular media, being “presidential” is akin to winning a popularity contest in middle school.
It’s all about what they wear, how tall they are, how much they spend on a haircut, whether their spouses are spousal enough, who has a “forced jackal laugh” (as the Guardian described Hillary Clinton), who is “blessed with a weighty baritone” (as Newsweek described Obama).
As November draws nearer, the race is likely to become much nastier. Republican strategist Richard Viguerie has promised to figure the Democratic Party as the umbrella of women, wusses and special interests. The powers that outed Valerie Plame, the lobbies that mocked Clinton’s proposals for healthcare as an ungodly communist plot, the Swift Boat gang and the deep-pocketed Scaife Foundation–they haven’t gone anywhere. Republicans can’t win on their record; their strategy will depend on having us forget that when Bill Clinton left office, he not only had balanced the budget but left a significant surplus of strong dollars. In casting the Clintons as a power-hungry “dynasty,” they would have us forget that it is Republicans who have reinterpreted the presidency as a monarchic “unitary executive.” It is my hope that we can inoculate ourselves against the apocalyptic nastiness that the past two elections indicate we may be in for. In anticipation of that turn to the low, however, it’s worth looking at the race and gender narratives already circulating, whose exploitation we need to resist.
Barack Obama personifies a civil rights triumph for which we as a society have yearned but are a long way from achieving (given prison, health and poverty statistics alone). But even as he silently telegraphs the image of longed-for victory, should he actually talk too much about racial equality or all that remains to be done, he risks reducing his iconicity as one who floats above it all. In the months to come, I expect he’ll be prodded and poked about this, in an all-out media effort to conform him in the polarizing, no-win contradictions that weigh upon his typecasting as a non-raced race man. Thus far he’s done an admirable job of avoiding the trap; he uses the rhetorical tropes of the civil rights movement in an expansive, inclusive way. He has attracted a constituency of whites and blacks, women and men, Asians and independents–and even a few Republicans. But there are things to brace for: if history is any guide, his suavity will be construed as too silky smooth, his suits too tailored, his “agenda” too black. Maureen Dowd says that the Obamas “radiate a sense that they are owed.” Newsweek sneaked in that Obama tends “toward the grandiose” and that his wife, Michelle, keeps him from “getting too full of himself.” Owed? Grandiose? Intimations of “uppityness” will waft up in new guises.
If the script of a strong woman who controls her husband is for now just background noise in depicting the Obamas, it is a full-scale derangement as applied to Hillary Clinton. Much is made of Obama’s winning in overwhelmingly white Iowa, but less is said about the fact that he and John Edwards, who came in second, are men. As Senator Clinton campaigned there, it was to the snarky drone of Rush Limbaugh’s chuckling about her wrinkles and babbling about how no one wants to watch a middle-aged woman grow old. Dowd cast Clinton as a “dominatrix” “control freak” who “whips” men into line, who “owns” Obama by snubbing him. On NPR, an Iowan who identified herself as 95 tittered in her papery voice that “all the women are in love” with Obama. No such happy flirtation with “all the guys” is attributed to Clinton, the pants-wearing, perpetually suspected lesbian murderess of Vince Foster. At Christmas, Hillary Clinton nutcrackers were quite the snapped-up item.
Not that there’s any consistency to prejudice of this sort. If Clinton-haters have gotten their jollies from painting her as “steely” and remote, in the mere mist of an eye she became too soft, wavery, choked up, broken down, beaten up. Headlines im-plied that Clinton had lost it and was sobbing wetly on someone other than God’s shoulder. “Hillary Clinton Gets Emotional.” “Play of the Day: Clinton Chokes Up.” “Teary-Eyed Clinton Vows to Fight On.” Yet the video showed her speaking of her plans for the country with eloquent emotion and great composure, her voice soft but strong. She appeared tired but was well spoken and cautionary about the political crossroads we face. There were no tears. There was nothing undignified about it.
I hope that we Americans can resist the vicious vacuity of politics at the level of whether Tara Reid has hit “scarily skinny.” We will have enough to deal with as the right’s Rovian spinmeisters kick into action, wrapping both Obama and Clinton in sticky webs of hybridized stereotypes. She will be too “mannish,” he too “boyish.” She’ll be too familiar, he too foreign. He’ll be a wimp, she’ll be a pimp. Yet this is an extraordinary moment in American history–we have our first serious black and female presidential candidates. It is my audacious little hope that the two of them, in whatever order, will become running mates by November. They must not fall prey to those who would love to see them wound each other before then, in the scramble to be top dog.