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:
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: