June 6th, 2008

Wanting a cool and sexy Prez

Maybe it’s come down to this: choosing a President is now mostly about style rather than substance.

Obama is cool. That’s the real link with Kennedy, who was exceptionally cool but in a very sophisticated way.

Bill Clinton was sort of cool, with the shades and the sax and the Elvis and all that. Sort of like a white black man.

But now we have a bona fide black black man, and a very cool one at that. Case in point: Obama’s fist bump with wife Michelle Tuesday night.

It’s gotten a lot of positive attention, especially from the young. Here’s the video, which makes it clear that Michelle initiates the gesture:

The response was positive (and here’s some more):

It thrilled a lot of black folks,” said author and commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates, who blogs at ta-nehisi.com. Why? Because it’s the kind of gesture that, while commonplace in the African American community, was generally stifled by earlier generations of blacks working their way up into the corporate or political worlds for fears “about looking too black,” he said. But Obama “is past that. . . . He wears his cultural blackness all over the place.” (Remember his aping of Jay- Z’s “dirt off your shoulder” move in a recent speech?) “It’s liberating to be able to run for president as a black man. . . . Barack is like Black Folks 2.0.”

The fist bump or “dap” has an interesting history. It originated in the Black Power movements of the 70s, but became divorced from any political implications and morphed into a popular form of greeting even among whites, particularly athletes.

I must confess that, although I’ve probably seen a few daps in my time, I’m so extraordinarily uncool that I didn’t even know the term till now.

The whole thing reminds me a bit of the famous Al/Tipper liplock at the 2000 Democratic Convention:


But that was different because Gore was widely perceived as a stiff and wonky guy; the length and passion of the kiss was a revelation of warmth that served to humanize him and to give him a modicum of temporary cool. Obama doesn’t have that handicap, and his dap only served to solidify the impression of hip youthfulness he already has been giving.

President Bush is manifestly uncool. He almost thrives on it and celebrates it. And McCain is too old and too quirky to be cool, although his wit—not really showcased so far in the campaign—can be exceptionally cool.

Back in 1960 during the Kennedy Nixon debates, it became clear that the new medium of television had changed the parameters of campaigns. McLuhan famously called TV a “cool” medium—although he didn’t mean it in the sense I’m using it here, but rather to signify that the viewer needed to fill in more blanks and give more context when watching it as opposed to the “hot” medium of movies, for example. But there’s no doubt that the visual focus of TV rewards the other type of coolness, the type Obama demonstrates, and takes focus away from the substance of what is being said.

There’s also little doubt that the advent of You Tube has changed campaigns. Now regular folk can get into the act of making political statements for anyone to see, amateur ads that spotlight contradictions in candidates’ messages or that highlight moments that would otherwise be lost, such as the dap in question. This brings them to what used to be called “the masses” for their approval or disapproval. A far cry from the stump speeches and whistle-stop tours of old.

Abraham Lincoln was not only a very controversial President in his time, with many enemies, but he was also one of the most strangely unattractive men to ever hold the office. I’ve often wondered whether he could have been elected in the current media environment—especially since I’ve heard he also had an unfortunately shrill and high-pitched voice. Although there’s no way to know, my conclusion is that he probably would have lost with TV and You Tube as part of the picture.

Coolness as a desirable Presidential characteristic may have begun with Kennedy and TV, but it intermittently went into hiding afterwards, or at least became less important. One of LBJ’s problems was that he was perceived as extremely uncool, but it didn’t stop him from trouncing the admittedly also uncool Goldwater. Nixon was popular and was elected to a second term by a wide margin, his polls only tanking because of Watergate. But he was so extraordinarily uncool he nearly made uncoolness into a style all his own:


Coolness is not the only thing the voters will use this time to evaluate the candidates. But it’s going to be a factor, especially among the young. Look to see McCain and Cindy show a few more public displays of affection. But the following isn’t going to cut it; they’ll have to ratchet up the heat factor:


15 Responses to “Wanting a cool and sexy Prez”

  1. Steven Says:

    “Nixon was only stopped from being elected to a second term by Watergate…”


  2. neo-neocon Says:

    Oops—can I plead a senior moment? I meant his popularity dropped. Of course, he was already elected to a second term. I will fix.

    As a feeble attempt at an excuse I can also plead concentration on my previous sentence about LBJ, who could have run for a second election (in his case, technically a third term) but chose not to.

    Plus, I was in a hurry to get to that wonderful photo of Nixon in his wingtips on the beach. Haste makes waste.

    Makes me more sympathetic to Obama and the 57 states.

  3. douglas Says:

    “Gore was widely perceived as a stiff and wonky guy; the length and passion of the kiss was a revelation of warmth that served to humanize him and to give him a modicum of temporary cool.”

    Really? Just seeing that picture again gives me the creeps. It was the most unnatural display of ‘passion’ I’ve ever seen in my life.

  4. mizpants Says:

    I’m with Douglas. The kiss was stomach-turning.
    The fist-bump was admittedly cool, if off-putting.

  5. huxley Says:

    I’m trying to figure out why Megan McArdle and Ann Althouse–two intelligent, non-left bloggers–came out for Obama earlier in the year and may still be with him.

    Yeah, I get that Obama has an intriguing, even sexy appeal, but unless one is committed to the left, Obama’s negatives in terms of lacking experience and accomplishments rack up fast and high when interviewing for the most powerful job on the planet.

    And that’s before you even get to the little black power church in the dale he’d been attending for 20 years.

  6. Vince P Says:

    my boss always wants to do a fist pump.. I think it’s really lame gesture.

  7. DW Says:

    And don’t forget that before “Loverboy” swept Tipper up into his arms, she had been, uh, arousing? stimulating? firing up?….well, whatever, she was doing her best bump-and-grind across the dais for the enraptured delegates.

    The kiss wasn’t, I think, so much to make him seem more human as to assure the nation that Gore was a one-woman kind of guy, and that the bimbo eruptions over the past eight years would no longer be a White House staple.

    What he and Tipper and those who choreographed the “Never-ending Smooch” failed to grasp is that it wasn’t just fidelity that millions of Americans wanted to see making a return to 1600, it was dignity. The dignity of presidents and first ladies that treated the office, the national residence, those sworn to protect them, and the voters with respect. Not the kind of people that let their well-heeled supporters stay over and jump up and down on the bed in the Lincoln Bedroom as if it were an eight-year-old’s first slumber party. Not the kind of people who ruined reputations with unwarranted investigations, in order to appear justified in replacing longstanding employees with their cronies. And not the kind of people that got caught in a national lie and responded by blaming others for making a fuss over it.

  8. Jimmy J. Says:

    Are we choosing a Mister America or the President of the United States? I’m disgusted by the fact that star power or charisma can trump substance when selecting a leader to a post of this importance.

    Two things to remember:
    1. The President’s primary job is to protect this country and as such is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces as well as the Chief Law Enforcement Officer for this nation.
    2. The next President will select two, possibly three Justices for the Supreme Court.

    For anyone with the any concern about national defense and having a Supreme Court that doesn’t try to make law, there is only one choice and that is McCain. (Flawed as he may be on some issues.)

  9. Occam's Beard Says:

    Jimmy, we’re not choosing a Mr. America. We’re choosing a Prom King, obviously.

  10. Terrye Says:

    I don’t think Obama is cool. Obama does not do so well with women I hear and I can see why. There is something arrogant about him. He does that head cock thing and just reminds you of a guy who thinks he is soooo cool that you should be flattered he would even to talk to you.

    The guy is in love with himself.

    McCain just strikes me as a man who is comfortable with himself. I don’t know if it is cool or not, but this is the White House we are talking about..not American Idol.

  11. Oldflyer Says:

    Well, maybe the “cool loving” young folks will sleep in, space out, or whatever they historically do on election day.

    Maybe McCain will actually trick Obama into answering questions without his written script and show him to be far less than “cool”.

    Maybe the American electorate will actually more heavily weigh serious attributes. Oh wait.

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  13. Wordsmiths for Obama: style vs. substance, poetry vs. prose | NeoConstant | Journal of Politics and Foreign Affairs Says:

    […] In trying to understand what about Obama appeals so powerfully to his supporters, I’ve decided that some—perhaps even much—of it is style. […]

  14. President Eye Candy Says:

    […] up for his presidency as well. Forget substance and leadership qualities, America wanted a “cool and sexy” president, and she got nothing but eye […]

  15. President Eye Candy Says:

    […] up for his presidency as well. Forget substance and leadership qualities, America wanted a “cool and sexy” president, and she got nothing but eye candy. –Read The Rest […]

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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