Barack Obama and the Power of Style: Why the GOP Can’t Find Its Soul

Barry Blitt has done it again, a provocative cover for the February 6, 2012 New Yorker.

In this complex image, we find a very relaxed, smiling, from ear-to-ear, President Obama, beer in one hand (could it be a foreign beer, a Heineken?), a football in the other. He’s in a white Oxford shirt, sleeves rolled up to his forearms ( he’s yet to have to pull them all the way up and go to the hard work, perhaps — or maybe he just makes the hard work look easy?), sitting in a comfortable chair — a moment for the president to chill out and watch a GOP football game on a wide screen tv.

The Big Game by Barry Blitt

The players, in a full stadium (presumably the public watching; mediated sports, here, functioning as “a continuing tension — relationship, influence and antagonism — to the dominant culture,” as Aaron Baker tells us in “Sports and the Popular,” in Sports, Media, and the Politics of Identity), are Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

A bulldog-faced and bruised Newt is being tackled by a flying Mitt, his face serious and determined. Helmets have flown off, noting the violence of the game — football and politics as high-stakes contact sports; both players are marked up, bruised, as is the GOP. And the football is out of their hands — a fumble, or the ongoing fumbling so much the definition of the GOP during this vicious political cycle pre-November.

Blitt is asserting an essential characteristic of Obama’s popularity that we’ve failed to see or if we’ve seen it, we’ve failed to acknowledge: Style. I’m suggesting that it is this Style that repels many white citizens — and politicians — but which will undoubtedly be an asset in his re-election.

Blitt deconstructs our “shortsightedness,” as I’ve said before, by conflating African-American style, coming into prominence through music, and mediated sports, especially America’s favorite contemporary passion, football, a game consistent with crisis management (we’re always in a crisis, in war with this or that — the Taliban, drugs, poverty), the taking of territory with power and wit, much like armies do, and restricted by time and space, the perfect metaphor for a world that has to deal with limited resources.

Everywhere we turn in football — and politics — there are constraints, limitations and crisis. And we’re always running out of time; there’s never enough. It’s now or never; there’s no long term plan. Attack, attack, attack. Leave no one standing. It’s not surprising that topping the sports news these days are concussions, the short athletic lives of football players and the compromises in later life. This is the American way of life. We can see that now. Fight, fall, endure — not much of a future in this.

But Obama offers us style as an antidote — and those that see their former lives metamorphosing into some unknown are fighting back like mad, rather then seeing the errors in the ways that have gotten us to this point. Republicans never talk about one reality, for instance (and the popular media never pursues this line): we’re living through the wonderful world left us by Bush-Cheney. The GOP has amnesia.

But where does style and the animosity towards it come from?

In the now classic Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, William C. Rhoden, of the New York Times, in “Style: The Dilemma of Appropriation,” tells us that in the summer of 1963, he remembers watching Ron Santo, the Chicago Cubs‘ third basement, hit a deep fly ball in the gap between right and center.

Willie Mays drifted across the outfield like Charles Coles, the great tapdancer whose footwork was so sweet and smooth that they called him “Honi.” He arrived at his spot under the baseball with no apparent sweat, even though he’d had to run for what seemed like miles to get there (147).

Following the catch, “Santo kicked the ground in disgust.” But, Rhoden says, the “most memorable part of the play took place after Mays made the catch”(147). Mays “nonchalantly picked up the ball out of his glove, tossed it back to the infield, coolly walked back to center field, flicked his sunglasses back up, and waited for the next play. His body language suggested annoyance that the batter hadn’t presented a greater challenge”(147-48).

Our Mays is Obama sitting back with shirt sleeves rolled to his forearms, beer in one hand, a football on the other — nonchalance, de rigueur for Obama. It’s how he strolls to the podium; how he must play basketball. It’s how he sings Al Green. And the plastic, always scripted Mitt Romney has no style at all. And Newt is a playground bully, unlikable, menacing.

Mays came along after Jackie Robinson, who had to watch every aspect of his life; he made room for Mays. After Mays we have Muhammad Ali, Charlie Parker earlier. Miles Davis introduced Americans to “cool” and “hipster” in the late 1950’s (Rhoden, 152).

“In virtually every decade since the 1950s, black athletes have been at the core of some stylistic or structural innovation in sports”(152).

These changes, as television — and the image — begin to dominate, run parallel to political figures — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson, Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm, and Carol Mosely Braun.

Barack Obama is now the most famous African-American; in him we see the political rise of the African-American. But we also see the manifestation of style, its rise out of R&B and Rap, out of the style so endemic of the NBAtats and all. The power of style is that “in some ways [it] underlines the [Black athlete’s] inability to define themselves in more substantive ways and find acceptance” (156).

Obama still can’t “define” himself in “substantive ways and find acceptance,” in general. With Obama’s current approval rating, the up-tick in employment figures and the ever present , though slow, upswing of the economy, the Republicans have little to address. Even Romney was bold enough to say that the current unemployment figures had nothing to do with Obama; however, Gingrich did say that, in the end, some credit would have to be given Obama. Which is which?

The GOP can’t coalesce around a singular message. This means that it’s going to get nastier; this means that direct attacks on Obama’s personality — his style, which for the African -American is synonymous with “soul” — will increase. The most violent and angry segments of the GOP are overtly racist, though their kids listen to Rap, wear caps with brims sideways and their boys sport baggy jeans half way down their buttocks (without knowing what this means).

The problem — and challenge — that the GOP image makers face is the “fact that black style was quickly commodified by white power, which became addicted to this other new form of black gold”(168). Style is something we require of our leaders because it shows how a candidate connects with the general public; it is powerful because it’s visceral, sensual and sexy. None of the GOP candidates are sexy. Women, minorities, the young all gravitate to “cool,” witness the rise of Apple, the wooden descriptions given Microsoft, lackluster and stiff, like its creator, Bill Gates.

America is a house divided by style. This is to argue that America is self-divided by a confusion concerning a change in the balance of power perpetuated by the rise of the black politician that, for the most part, comes with a history that’s quite different from the history experienced by the dominant (white) class of privilege. And one definitive — and powerful — characteristic of this style, as Rhoden argues, is that it’s a consequence of great suffering.

In an America that is suffering profoundly, only a leader that has suffered, personally and with his people, can lead. It’s a matter of grace, something Hemingway would argue, but which the GOP fails to see.

The GOP nominee will be Mitt Romney, but he’ll fail because he lacks the grace — and dignity — to address deeply felt suffering with style that says, I understand. We can overcome by making it look easy.

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3 thoughts on “Barack Obama and the Power of Style: Why the GOP Can’t Find Its Soul

  1. i’ve been thinking about this commentary since the weekend. so much there, i haven’t figured out if/how/where to weigh in. but at this point i at least wanted to note how provocative and prescient i think it is, until i can think of something better, more substantive to offer.

    • Thank you for your comments — much appreciated. It’s just a few things I’ve tried to add the mix, as you rightly say, something to think about…

      /hector

  2. Really enjoyed the post. Both the content and the excellent writing. You definitely demonstrated style in writing about style.
    I think it is interesting to think back to the years of Gore and Kerry when it was the democratic party was the one criticized for failing to grasp the importance of connecting with the larger populace through the proper presentation of self. Although in that case the style of W was quite different than what we see with Obama. I am curious how that recent example would fit into your argument.

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