If you want a case of vertigo, try listening to a writer who dabbles in descriptions of oral sex when he suddenly turns up on a Sunday morning news panel to offer a lecture on comportment. For there was David Frum, the Ned Flanders of Republican pundits whose newly published first novel, Patriots, opens with the protagonist being serviced awake at 6 a.m. by his girlfriend, suggesting on CNN’s Reliable Sources over the weekend that U.S. President Barack Obama was acting inappropriately by hobnobbing with Hollywood’s cool kids.
In particular, Frum objected to Obama’s appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last week, in which the so-called “Preezy of the United Steezy” performed a “slow jam” of the news with the talk-show host and his house band the Roots, taking Congress to task for failing to prevent an increase in the interest rate for college student loans.
To most casual observers, Obama’s appearance would seem to land comfortably on the continuum of Bill Clinton’s 1992 saxophone noodling on The Arsenio Hall Show. Richard Nixon appeared on Laugh-In, after all. “It’s different,” argued Frum. “The precedents that are being cited are all about candidates, not about sitting presidents.”
There’s hardly a difference between the two, at least since Clinton initiated “the continuous campaign” during his first term. But Frum was flicking at a larger theme that’s suddenly become a key talking point for Republicans and their Super PACs: that Obama is too cool, too enamoured of celebrities, to remain in the White House.
It’s a bizarre and tin-eared tactic, especially in an era when it’s far easier to become a celebrity than to, say, become a private equity banker with a net worth in the neighbourhood of $200-million.
Still, Obama’s critics believe resentment can be fruitful, and three days after the Late Night slow jam went viral, the Karl Rove-founded Super PAC American Crossroads unleashed a 45-second spot online, “Cool,” which featured the President dancing with Ellen DeGeneres, drinking a pint of Guinness, crooning Al Green, calling Kanye West a jackass and pointing to admirers from behind a pair of dark shades – until gloomy stats about millennials began to thud across the screen: “After four years of a celebrity president, is your life any better?” read the on-screen type, in neon green and pink (which suggested the ad might have been art-directed by 12-year-old girls).
The spot was well-timed, hitting screens just before Washington’s weekend-long festivities around the White House Correspondents Dinner. At that fete last Saturday night, Obama demonstrated his mastery of performance with a niftily passive-aggressive two-step, simultaneously basking in the admiration of TV and movie stars in the crowd – including Steven Spielberg, Lindsay Lohan, Reese Witherspoon, Viola Davis, Zooey Deschanel and host Jimmy Kimmel – while reasserting his distance from them. “I’m the President of the United States,” he muttered in a faux-candid offstage moment that was picked up by a live microphone. “What am I doing telling knock-knock jokes to Kim Kardashian?”
And rather than run away from the emerging meme, Obama played up his new cool factor as a wedge issue, joking during his dinnertime monologue that Mitt Romney was so incensed by the Fallon slow jam, “he asked his staff if he could get some equal time. (Beat) On The Merv Griffin Show.”
Even Donald Trump realized the American Crossroads ad was like a North Korean rocket, telling MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, “They’re making Obama look great. They’re making it look like that’s the man we want to be President.”
Rove and the other Obama critics have evidently failed to grasp a fundamental shift in the political, social and media landscapes over the past few years. If the American Dream was once embodied by someone like Mitt Romney – you too could capitalize on unbridled markets to create unbridled wealth for yourself! – in the new age of diminished expectations (and, um, bridled markets), the dream is now to become Kim Kardashian: an insta-celebrity who dominates our culture even as many still wonder, as Obama did during that offstage moment, “Why is she famous, anyway?” We might not have a reality show on cable, but technology has enabled each of us to be celebrities in our own tiny spheres.
And the Democrats are cannily promoting that newly democratic definition of celebrity. Next week, actor George Clooney and Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg will host a fundraising dinner for Obama in Studio City that has a reported $40,000-a-plate ticket price. But one lucky commoner will also land on the guest list through a lottery being run by the Obama campaign with a “suggested donation” of only $3. Still, as Jimmy Kimmel joked, “If you don’t win the raffle, you still can win dinner with George himself – if you’re a 6-foot-1 blonde with a perfect body.”
You can run against cool, sure. But you’re just going to end up looking square.