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Not Enough Drama from Obama?

Tom Degan: It's bad enough that the requirement of this media age is that all of our presidents be "telegenic." It is now apparently mandated that they comport themselves like drama queens. Not only do they need to look like the model in an Esquire ad, they now have to behave like Greta Garbo: "I vant to be alone!"

Why sending a feeble-mnded, "B" movie actor to the White House 30 years ago was a monumentally stupid idea: Reason 19, 442.


It's bad enough that the requirement of this media age is that all of our presidents be "telegenic." It is now apparently mandated that they comport themselves like drama queens. Not only do they need to look like the model in an Esquire ad, they now have to behave like Greta Garbo: "I vant to be alone!" Since when is this a prerequisite for effective presidential leadership? This new reality is just one more of the many nasty hangovers from the era of Ronald Reagan.

Many years ago when I was still in high school, I bore witness to an argument between a teenage couple that still makes me laugh thirty-four years later. The guy had experienced a minor mishap of some kind - so minor, in fact, that I cannot recall even a single detail. After explaining to his girlfriend what had happened, this clown became indignant when she didn't break into tears on hearing about it. Seriously! He actually became incensed because she didn't cry! The reaction of so many in the media this week at President Obama's inherently calm demeanor during the Gulf of Mexico crisis brought this cherished memory back to life with a comical vengeance.

So the president of the United States is not "angry" enough. He's not "weepy" enough. He doesn't "emote". Has the mainstream media been hijacked by a cabal of petulant sixteen-year-olds? Do they expect Barack Obama to behave like the half-witted antagonist of a Lesley Gore tune?

It's my party and I'll cry if I want to!
Cry if I want to!
Cry if I want to!
You would cry to if it happened to you!

Please. In this one respect Barack Obama is a lot like JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although many of us are not old enough to remember those thirteen awful days in October of 1962, we've certainly seen enough film and videotape footage of it. How did Jack Kennedy behave during that confrontation with Russia? He was as cool as a freakin' cucumber, Buster! Can you imagine how the Soviets would have reacted had the president taken the suggestion of an adviser that he "freak out"? Many of you reading this would never have been born. I would probably be dead. We would never have known the name "Sarah Palin". There would today be no such thing as FOX News. Oh, the humanity.

What is it with these black guys? Why the "cool detachment" of so many of them? What's that all about and where did it start?

It started with the jazz musicians of the thirties and forties. They adopted their apparently indifferent, "cool" demeanor simply as a means of survival. The fact of the matter is that back then (and even now in some cases) the very sight of an African American showing any emotion tends to put a certain type of white person ill-at-ease.

Virginia Mayo and Ronald Reagan in "The Girl From Jones Beach".

Virginia Mayo and Ronald Reagan in "The Girl From Jones Beach".

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Seventy years ago these musicians traveled throughout the country on what was called the "Chitlin Circuit" - black performers traveling to venues where they would entertain predominantly black audiences. Their mode of transportation were buses or caravans of automobiles. Oft times they had to travel though the deep south which, if you'll recall your American history, was not Valhalla for people with dark skin in the weird old days. Remember, up until the mid-twentieth century, the quaint tradition of lynching was perfectly legal in that region of the country. In order not to draw attention to themselves, these groups of performers had to remain (figuratively and literally) COOL! So was born a very cool tradition. Ya dig?

Wednesday night on Hardball with Chris Matthews, Newsweek's Jonathan Capehart - a "person of color" - related the story of how, as a boy, his stepfather once admonished him for showing "too much emotion in your face", and how he would be much better off getting through life as a black person by not revealing the intensity of his feelings. In his autobiography, Barack Obama wrote of his determination to present himself to the world as the most amiable of men in order to pacify the anxiety of white people. He knew instinctively (as do most African American males) that he would avoid a lot of problems if he were not perceived as "AN ANGRY BLACK MAN". By the way, his strategy worked. The guy is at this moment waking up - snug as a bug in a rug - in his bed inside the Executive Mansion. Smart fellow, that Obama.

As I have mentioned too many times to count, this president has been a bit of a disappointment. Although this is definitely "change", not all of it is change I can believe in. But I must give the man credit where credit is due. The calm, unemotional manner in which he carries himself I do not find unsettling. In fact, it gives me more confidence in this president than I have had in any president in my lifetime.

He doesn't get angry or emotional? I'm cool with that. He tends to be contemplative and thorough? No problem! He keeps a poker face? Deal me in! I don't find any of these characteristics troubling. In fact, I can't help but find them reassuring! Folks, let's remember that for eight years we had a shoot-from-the-hip, half-witted frat boy in charge of our country! We don't want to go back there, do we? I didn't think so.

Again, the comparisons to President Kennedy are unavoidable. What was the angriest statement he made during his all-too-short time in the White House? It was during a April 11, 1962 press conference, when he acidly described the "utter contempt for the interests of 185 million Americans" that Roger Blough and the executives at U.S. Steel were showing by raising the price of that metal by six cents a ton. But even in this instance, although his words bore anger and even rage, his presence exhibited the calm grace for which he was justifiably famous. Can you even imagine Jack Kennedy behaving in any other way? What the heck, let's give it a try, shall we?

"These contemptible bastards at U.S. Steel stabbed me in the back! That's it, man! No more Mister Nice Guy! I'm gonna kick some serious shit out of somebody, baby! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU'RE MESSIN' WITH, ROGER BLOUGH? WHO YOU TALKN' TO? YOU TALKIN' TO ME? ARE YOU TALKIN' TO ME???"

I mean, seriously.

Yesterday, the unintentional comedians at FOX Noise were even more hypocritical that usual. On the one hand they were criticizing the chief executive for being a cold fish, on the other they were calling him to task for talking about "kicking some ass" during an interview the day before with Matt Lauher on the Today program. It's the same old story with these people. Damned if he does; damned if he doesn't.

The media's response to President Obama's "lack of emotion" is symptomatic of how dumbed-down we've become as a culture in the last three decades. I wish these people could realize how stupid they look when they complain - like that dopey teenager all those decades ago - that the president "won't cry". As Capehart said last night on MSNBC, Obama "is just not wired that way". Indeed he's not. He is what he is. It's his party and he'll cry if he wants to. Some people really need to grow up.

Tom Degan

SUGGESTED READING: Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye , by Dave Powers and Kenny O'Donnell. A funny and poignant memoir of their friendship with John F. Kennedy. A great book.