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Posts Tagged ‘Orson Welles’

One of the reasons 67 or so million of us voted for Barack Obama in 2008 was his cool, intelligent, rational demeanor, a welcome change from years of GOP saber-rattling, fear-mongering, bumper-sticker politicking and faux-patriotic bombast. Obama’s Zen focus and “no drama” credo contrasted sharply with John McCain’s erratic truculence; the McCain-Palin ticket promised an itchy finger on the button, with a grinning, winking idiot in the wings.

But at this time of crises, upheavals and catastrophes, domestic and foreign, the President and his political handlers seem to have missed something crucial in his job description. And I say this as a strong supporter, who thinks he’s done an excellent job substantively, and would rather have him in the White House than any Republican, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln. In an interview with Matt Lauer during last year’s BP oil disaster, POTUS said the presidency “is not theater” and that he “doesn’t always have time to perform for the benefit of cable news shows.”

There is something admirable in that, I suppose. But I think President Obama has it wrong. Look back over the past 90 years, since electronic media brought the presidency into America’s living rooms. Who were the most successful chief executives, electorally and in terms of achieving their goals?

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

As far apart as they were ideologically, those two Presidents shared one common gift: They were masters of political theater, using their office not only as a “bully pulpit,” but as a stage. They grasped that a flair for the dramatic was an indispensable quality in a leader. As Jonathan Alter recounts in The Defining Moment, his excellent book on Roosevelt’s election and early presidency, FDR once said to Orson Welles, “Orson, you know, you and I are the two best actors in America.”  And Reagan, of course, actually was an actor.

Privately, both those men are said to have shied away from intimacy; there was something unknowable about them. But publicly both knew how to bond with the country, to be empathetic, to make Americans feel that they cared (Bill Clinton, another two-term President who remains a political rock star 10 years after leaving office, may be the grand master of empathy).

FDR’s speeches and “fireside chats” were tours de force that rallied the nation; not only did he try endless strategies to lift America out of the Great Depression he made sure Americans knew it—made sure it looked like he was doing something.

As for Reagan, he, was the Great Communicator—he, too, knew how to instill confidence. And his “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech was so effective that some worshippers credit him with winning the Cold War single-handed.

Both presidents made missteps (as a liberal, of course, I’ll argue that Reagan made more of them). But in the minds of all but the ideologues on either end of the spectrum, they are remembered for their successes—and perceived successes.

With his disdain for political theater and public show, and apparent preference for behind-the-scenes problem-solving and negotiation, President Obama is dismissing the “making it look like you’re doing something” part of the job—and he’s missed several opportunities to do so. As Rahm Emanuel famously said, never let a crisis go to waste. The past two years have brought huge crises that cried out for the president to show some stage presence— something more than the occasional briefing to announce that he’s “monitoring the situation.”

The BP oil spill was a golden opportunity for President Obama to show that he’s not George W. Bush, to immediately say he would take control, to declare war on the disaster, to get down there, roll up his sleeves—and yes, do some photo ops. Instead, he took a couple of family vacations. And while a presidential vacation—especially in this communications age—is always a working one, you have to look like you’re engaged.

The pundits call it “optics.” The explosions in the Mideast and the Japanese catastrophe were two other recent instances that cried out for a show of passion. Instead, we saw President Obama offer up his college basketball picks and celebrate St. Paddy’s Day.

Domestically, the president has been less than Rooseveltian in conveying his impassioned determination to solve the jobs crisis—or look like he’s solving the jobs crisis.

As for the upheavals in the Midwest, where Republican governors like Scott Walker, John Kasich and Rick Snyder seem determined to crush the middle class under the weight of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, I understand why President Obama has been laying back, not injecting himself into these state fights. It has allowed the blossoming of a huge movement that has energized the Democratic base, and pulled blue-collar and middle class “Reagan Democrats” away from the GOP.

But something like Snyder’s attempt to turn Michigan into a corporate monarchy seems to beg for some kind of comment or show of interest. Still, the jury’s still out—this may be one instance where the President’s detachment works, as GOP overreach makes the party toxic in the electorally critical heartland.

History may prove that on substance, President Obama has generally followed the right course. But in the short term, if purely out of political self –interest, he could learn a few things from Roosevelt and Ronnie about White House stagecraft.

Mr. President, tear down this wall—the wall between you and the rest of us.

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Somewhere, Orson Welles is smiling.

On Oct. 30, 1938, CBS radio’s Mercury Theatre of the Air broadcast the future film auteur’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds. Welles’s straight-faced narration of the tale about Martians landing in Central Jersey scared the bejeesus out of tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of listeners. Though reports of widespread panic may have been exaggerated, the broadcast made Welles a household name.

That was when broadcast news still had standards. Almost exactly 72 years later, on Nov. 8, 2010, 24-hour cable TV stations were engulfed in a feeding frenzy when an LA traffic chopper captured the image of a mysterious trail of vapor in the skies off the Southern California coast. With Pentagon officials clueless about the “Mystery Missile,” it set off an even longer vapor trail of media speculation and Internet conspiracy theories—appropriately mocked by Jon Stewart. Perhaps it was the work of North Korea, China or some other hostile nation; “Islamofascist” or domestic terrorists or extraterrestrials, or Mel Gibson or Naomi Campbell.

Finally, as the The Huffington Post reported, “Defense Department spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said… that officials were satisfied it was an airplane contrail distorted by camera angle, winds and other environmental factors including a setting sun.”

Well, he would say that. The world, however, isn’t satisfied. Nor am I. Instead, I posit a previously unexplored theory:

The “Mystery Missile” was the work of Richard and Mayumi Heene—the hoaxers and reality show wannabes who on Oct. 15 2009 sent our hypercase cable heads into breathless hysteria by claiming they’d accidentally launched their 6-year-old son, Falcon (hiding in the attic) skyward over Colorado in a runaway balloon. The publicity punking earned both parents jail time, and now Richard’s trying to channel Billy Mays with an utterly batshit commercial for his latest invention, the “Bear Scratch” back scratcher.

It’s just a front: This is Heene’s Revenge. He’s just biding his time before the big reveal.

You just wait. The truth is out there.

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