Obama, we hardly knew ye
[W]ith Barack Hussein Obama officially becoming the Democratic presidential nominee on Wednesday night, some of the same qualities that have brought him just one election away from the White House — his virtuosity, his seriousness, his ability to inspire, his seeming immunity from the strains that afflict others — may be among his biggest obstacles to getting there. There is little about him that feels spontaneous or unpolished, and even after two books, thousands of campaign events and countless hours on television, many Americans say they do not feel they know him. The charges of elusiveness puzzle those closest to the candidate. Far more than most politicians, they say, he is the same in public as he is in private.
I prepared for California, where I had gotten a tenure-track position and so would likely spend the rest of my life, by re-reading Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. A tale of the Hollywood funeral industry, an enterprise devoted to denial, it features Miss Thanatopolos, a junior embalmer whose toilette Waugh describes in excruciating detail. Every morning, Miss Thanatopolos depilatates and deoderizes herself. She showers, emulsifies, shaves, tweezes, colognes, brushes, polishes and makes up until she is the perfectly standardized, sanitized American virgin.
Americans must want this since firms spend millions training staff to be polished, pleasant and bland--from uniformed convention-hotel clerks and flight attendants to salesmen, trainers and facilitators in business casual. I've been to innumerable workshops and training sessions run by these facilitators on topics ranging from cultural sensitivity to alcohol awareness. "Training" is supposed to be the efficient, scientific alternative to education. Trainers organize topics into modular skill-sets which they inculcate by means of recipes, relating games and drill in an atmosphere of cheerful boosterism.
Everyone knows it's crap. Last spring, at a workshop on student advising, faculty who taught Friday classes were advised to dismiss their students with the formula, "Have a safe and sober weekend." None of us will. The functionary who offered this piece of advice knew that none of us would and all of us knew that even if we did it would have no effect whatsoever on student behavior. Academics are untrainable.
But even when training is successful we don't always like the results. Last night at the convention, Americans were charmed again by Bill Clinton. Bubba could never even be trained to keep his pants up but Americans forgave him seventy time seventy. Everyone loved Bill. But most cannot connect with Obama--perfectly trained, perfectly polished and flawless.
It isn't that we think he's an empty suit: we know he's smart--probably a lot smarter than we are. And it isn't the perception of elitism. All presidents and presidential aspirants are moneyed and educated. But even Poppy Bush, the uber-WASP and most overtly patrician president in office during my lifetime, didn't make Americans uneasy in the same way. I always warmed to Poppy in the way I, and everyone else, warmed to Bubba.
But I don't think anyone really warms to Obama. I'd love a beer with Bubba or a martini with Poppy Bush but I would not want to sip white wine with Obama. Bush Sr. and Bill have private lives and characters behind their public personae that occasionally extrude through their political facades, and inform their public personae. Obama is perfectly trained, completely disciplined and, we sense, the same in private as he is in public, his entire personality subsumed into his political persona. I imagine that a social conversation with Obama would be like drill at a training session.
But even if they would not want to have a glass of wine with him, Obama has a wildly enthusiastic following and he will be elected. Training works. We deplore the homogenization of the American landscape, the shopping malls, franchise restaurants and McMansions, and see the superficial slickness of trained personnel for exactly what it is. But we buy it anyway. We want airports to be antiseptic and glitzy, with mildly interesting displays of semi-art, Tie-Rack and Wilson's Leather, and flight attendants to be bland and polite. Above all, we want presidents to look presidential.
I confess that I'm actually not one of the "we" who wants this. I find shopping malls unpleasant and avoid them. I hate it when employees at my local supermarket interfere with me to ask whether I'm "finding everything ok." All that cleanliness, slickness and glitz is not only wasted on me--it makes me uncomfortable because it sets standards that I don't want to make the effort to meet. All the stylized little interactions that employees in stores, banks and public facilities have been trained to perform--"how are you today?", "have a nice day," and the like--are 1000 little paper-cuts to me. I want either real conversation or no contact at all. Contact is stressful: it has a cost. But one is willing to pay the price if it leads to interesting conversation. These little contacts are, for me, pure cost with no benefit because I am shy.
But most people it seems aren't. Walmart, which cuts costs to the bone wherever it can to maximize profits, hires greeters, presumably because they've determined that most people want to be greeted and my local Vons, which just upgraded its establishment, has trained personnel to ask shoppers whether they're finding everything ok because someone in management has ascertained that most like it. Shy people, like me, put up with it because we have no choice and usually play along politely because we're ashamed of being shy. But most people, it seems, want little interactions as they go about their daily lives and want to conduct their business in settings that are clean, bland, unobtrusive and predictable, so firms train employees to play the part consumers want them to play in casual contact and maintain the bland, sanitized facilities that make them comfortable--muzak for the soul.
But even if most people want slick blandness in casual contacts, all want something more. Beyond those staged interactions and business dealings, they want real conversation, real individuality, real emotion, oomph, unpredictability, soul and heart. And that is what Obama has not got, because he is trained to the core.
Looking every inch the ideal flight attendant in his perfectly tailored blazer, Obama steps off the plane. We want flight attendants to be well-trained but we're not so sure we want that in a president.