Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Company We Keep

The Company We Keep

Yesterday (5/20/2012) offered U.S. voters an interesting, relatively non-histrionic study in contrasts.  On the one hand, Barack Obama hosted the Presidential Medal of Freedom awards ceremony.  On the other hand, Mitt Romney attended a campaign fundraising event.

I’m not comparing the events, or their gravitas quotients.  Only an incumbent president can hand out presidential awards, and all candidates must and do participate in fundraisers.  What’s interesting is who Obama and Romney chose to mix and mingle with . . . and what those choices might suggest about each candidate.

The headliner for the Romney event was Donald Trump, the P. T. Barnum of birtherism, self-styled rich-equals-smart poster boy, and coy participant in the Republican presidential primary opera bouffe.  The undercard was penguin-bitten lobbyist-turned-zoologist Newt Gingrich, whose exit from the aforesaid primary seems to have flattened a little of his crazy fizz.  Governor Romney was somewhere in attendance.  Extras were played by . . . well, what did you expect?   Random wealthy Republicans.

The Obama event headlined the medal recipients.  The list is pretty impressive and fascinatingly diverse, at least in terms of what the awardees have accomplished and in what fields they’ve sown their accomplishments.  The undercard was President Obama, who got to hand out accolades and interact, to some extent, with the real stars of this show.  Extras were played by . . . random Democrats for the most part, wealthy and somewhat less so.  Plus the gaffers and best boys and foley artists:  the press (the Romney event was closed to the fourth estate). 

What makes these events comparable (other than they happened on the same day, and were orchestrated to greater or lesser degrees by this year’s presidential candidates)?  In both cases, the candidates actually chose the company they kept.  Mitt Romney chose to appear with Donald Trump, and Barack Obama chose the honorees (these awards, which Harry Truman initiated, are the president’s personal selections of civilians [usually, but not necessarily U.S. citizens; usually, but not necessarily, alive] who’ve made extraordinary contributions to the country). 

One might think that Governor Romney – on the night he clinched the Republican nomination – would have elected to surround himself with valued members of his party, with his pleasant and telegenic family, or even with his ground operatives in Texas, the state that yesterday pushed him over the top.  But no.  He flew to Las Vegas to kowtow to Donald Trump, the man whom the respected conservative columnist George Will memorably and correctly called “a bloviating ignoramus” just a few days ago . . . the man who spent most of yesterday spreading his birther schtick on every media outlet that turned toast-side up.

President Obama also made choices.  No one would argue that these are not largely political choices, but they are choices all the same.  Bob Dylan, Madeleine Albright, Toni Morrison, John Glenn, Juliette Gordon Low, Dolores Huerta, John Paul Stevens, Pat Summitt:  most sentient Americans recognize these people as cultural, political, and legal icons.  Yet there are more unusual and/or less recognizable designees as well:  John Doare, a leader of federal efforts to protect and enforce Civil Rights during the 1960s; Dr. William Foege, former director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention; Gordon Hirabayashi, activist against forced Japanese interment during World War II; Jan Karski, hero of the Polish Underground; Shimon Peres, ninth President of Israel.

What do these choices tell us about Barack Obama?

It’s clear that there’s a tilt towards champions of the downtrodden.  It’s also clear that there’s a true appreciation of women’s talents and agency.  Both conclusions are reinforced by everything we know about the President’s life experiences.  In addition, the list includes a musician (was it hard to select Bob Dylan in place of Al Green?) and a sports luminary (from the basketball world, natch, and women’s basketball at that) – both awardees representing what seem to be genuine Obama interests/hobbies/passions. 

What do Mitt Romney’s choices reveal?

Among all the campaign-friendly people Romney could have spent yesterday with, he selected The Donald.  Since Governor Romney has never shown interest in gambling, television celebrity branding, trophy wives, hair weaves, real estate development, or (to be fair) birtherism, one has to conclude that the choice here was based not on affinity but on the most stinky level of political scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours-ism.

But was it?

President Obama chose to keep company yesterday with people whose principles and vocations he admires.  Maybe Governor Romney has done the same thing.  What he and Donald Trump have in common is . . . vast wealth. 

If we think through the past political year, a dominant thread in the Romney tapestry has been being very, very rich – and understanding the world only through that lens.   Even though Mitt Romney and Donald Trump seem to have radically different styles and personalities, perhaps (in Romney’s mind, at least – it’s easy to suspect that Trump’s current birther barrage is intended to sabotage Republican presidential chances, for reasons that are not presently apparent) they’re joined at the financial hip in a way that would make Chang and Eng feel like free-floating monads. 

Yesterday’s choices give us a big hint about what sorts of people the candidates have or would like to have as friends.  What sorts of people they feel comfortable with, look up to, get a kick out of, enjoy shooting the breeze (or hoops) with.  For President Obama, such people would be athletes and singers, political activists and public servants, plus the woman without whom the world would be deprived of Girl Scout cookies.  For Governor Romney, such people would be aging gazillionaires of the White male persuasion.

Thus I’d like to suggest a variation on the now-hackneyed “Who would you rather have a beer (or a Coke-Zero) with” question asked in regard to presidential candidates.  Instead, try:  “Whose at-home barbeque or dinner party would you rather attend?”  Answering this question makes one think not only of the principal player (Obama, Romney) but also of his all-important and often elusive supporting cast.  Which candidate’s actual friends would you prefer to hang out with?  

This November, try considering your vote as an RSVP to a get-together hosted by the presidential candidate and attended by his BFFs.  Which company would you prefer to keep?

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