"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Where’s The Beef? The Vaudeville of American Politics And Why Americans Don’t Care

In 1984 Wendy’s ad slogan ‘Where’s the beef?’ went viral. Anyone who was more show than substance was tagged as an empty hamburger bun.

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Funny how this tagline caught on so quickly. Everyone knows that America is the land of image.  Entertainment is one of our major exports, political vaudeville is our stock-in-trade, mega-church extravaganzas define our religion, and Las Vegas is our cultural home. 

We are deliberately and doggedly anti-intellectual.  George W. Bush, Harvard- and Yale-educated, son of an equally well-educated patrician family, was smart enough to know that American voters don’t want some uppity, arrogant Easterner with airs leading the country.  “He’s the kind of guy I could have a beer with”, is the most ringing endorsement a President could have.  A regular guy with no pretenses.  Someone who knows what kind of cheese to put on a Philly cheese steak or how to eat a corn dog.  Bush spoke just like the rest of us – simply, inelegantly, but honestly.

Ronald Reagan transferred his Hollywood image of good looks and Western individualism to an Everyman that Americans loved.  He cleared brush on his ranch, and stood tall in the saddle just like he had in the Westerns.  His image matched his message – rugged individualism, patriotism, honor and courage, and moral righteousness.

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Jack Kennedy understood image even better than Reagan.  Camelot – the image created and popularized by his wife, Jackie, after his death – was as brilliant a PR invention as any from Madison Avenue.  The Kennedy White House was all about glamour, high art, music, and literature.  Robert Frost read at JFK’s inauguration.  Pablo Casals played for foreign dignitaries. Kennedy knew, that despite Americans’ empathy for the little man, they wanted the unattainable – the Downton Abbey effect. Kennedy, a middling if not incompetent President at best, will always be remembered for his good looks, his wit and humor and the elegance of the White House.

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Barack Obama has been criticized since the beginning of his Presidency for being arrogant and distant.  He lacked the common touch.  Too much law professor and too little man of the people.
We have loved brush-clearing, regular guy George Bush; rugged individualist Ronald Reagan; and aristocratic John F. Kennedy because of what they stood for, not for their qualities of mind. As smart as Obama may be, we could care less.

Image result for image george bush clearing brush on his ranch
Ronald Reagan, still in office when the Wendy’s ad came out, was ridiculed by the liberal Left for having no substance, intelligence, or rational insight. Their answer to the question, “Where’s the President’s beef?” was “There is none”.

Of course they missed the point. Ronald Reagan, quintessential American, Hollywood hero, son of poor farm family, and popular President didn’t have to have anything more than a clear vision based on image.  His ‘Shining City Upon A Hill’ speech perfectly captured the essence of his appeal.  Patriotism, valor, individualism, and enterprise were the qualities responsible for America’s greatness, and as long as they were respected, our future was very bright indeed.

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Madison Avenue and Hollywood are America’s most iconic industries.  Advertising, the engine behind marketing and sales, has always been brilliant at exploiting Americans’ faith in image.  Everything from cars to linoleum has been sold based on sex appeal, success, glamor, and the unvarnished maleness of the West.  Advertising has been brilliant in disguising inefficiency, irrelevance, and high cost or diverting attention from practical, economic factors.

Hollywood sells culture. European-style art films are few and far between.  In the movie The Player, the studio head, listening to a pitch for a serious movie about the death penalty, says, “Do they fuck? If I am going to watch two hours of prisons and gas chambers, somebody has to fuck.” Of course they will, says the producer.

“Happy endings”, says the hero who takes over the making of the film and changes it completely to end happily with the heroine rescued at the last minute. Happy endings are what Hollywood is all about.

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None of this is that new.  India has the same kind of feel-good, happy ending film industry. President Putin is not bad as an image-maker, posing bare-chested, riding horses, and burnishing his reputation as a macho man. Yet no country seems to put image first as much as America.  Former President Sarkozy had a playboy lifestyle, married a beautiful movie star, and projected French savoir-faire.  Yet that was the way he was, not what he wanted to project.

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Europeans have been through too much miserable history to put much faith in appearances. No matter who was in power, whether Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette or the murderous Jacobins, brutality, corruption, and venality would rule.  As Shakespeare illustrated in his many Histories, the actors might change, but the course of events would not. Human nature was unchangeable, and whether Richard III or Henry VI, all monarchs acted the same. The most desperate peasant could see through the pomp and ceremony, the glitz and glamour, and see their rulers for what they were.

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In America we seem to deliberately want to avoid reality. A candidate has to be good if he presents an image of faith, devotion to God, and moral rectitude.  Forget the hundreds of politicians in recent memory who have run on morality and family values and turned out to be liars and cheats.

We buy clothes, shoes, and party dresses as soon as they come on the market and discard them as quickly. Personal image is prized, but temporary.  We are indeed, as Pope Francis has repeatedly pointed out, a materialistic culture.  As Christ amply pointed out in the Gospels, wealth in itself is not the problem, it is the allure of wealth which is.  If any country is guilty of disregarding the important, it is America.

If anyone ever doubted the importance of image over substance in America, it was there for show during the 2016 campaign vaudeville act.  Not only Donald Trump, but every politician is scrambling to hone his or her image – leader, visionary, defender of faith and morals, super-patriot, or super-hero.  They all knew that voters make up their minds on the basis of image and not substance, and therefore leave talking points, policy papers, and manifestos unwritten.  Enough time for that once they are elected, they say.

Image result for images donald trump

Trump’s popularity is a result of the felicitous juncture of voter frustration; Americans’ ingrained and innate love of Hollywood stardom, celebrity, and outsized personality; Trump’s own background in Hollywood and the mean streets of finance and real estate; and the incessant media demand for outrageous stories. 

Trump's rise to and hold on power has nothing to do with governance, public policy, or international relations.  Trump has revolutionized politics more than any other candidate in the past.  Ronald Reagan was revolutionary in his own right and his policies changed forever the way government does business; but Trump is anarchic. 

What is far more revolutionary is the total dismissal of the old, established cultural powers that be.  Trump has no time let alone respect for the established media, political pundits, think tanks, or received wisdom.  His is an administration of social media, big data, and universal populism.  He is a child – despite his age – of the new, plugged-in, cybernetic, subjective, viral New Age; and the old guard are flummoxed.  They have no idea what’s happening and persistently try to draw the Republic back to truth, veracity, intellectual mediation, and reasonableness.
The point is, none of us should grouse and gripe about the dumbing down of the electoral process. We are the facilitators and expeditors of the process.  Without our willing suspension of reason, intelligence, and logic, these politicians would never get past Go.

There is no point in wishing we were more like the French or the Scandinavians – more reasonable, perhaps, or at least more grounded in history. There is no point either in promoting reforms to the educational system to make us smarter and more savvy. No populist revolution, no return to aristocracy, no socialist movement – nothing can change the course of our history.

So, we get what we deserve, and it is not all that bad.  The Golden Age was the Eighties when Hollywood and Washington were united in the person of Ronald Reagan. West Coast and East Coast image-making joined in one man. The same is happening with Donald Trump, despite his naysayers.  For the first time ever, the American Middle - drawn to Hollywood, image, glitz, personality, and braggadocio - has its President. 

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