Tuesday, July 10, 2012

In Partial Defense of Jet Skis

In Partial Defense of Jet Skis

Hey, I’m first in line when it comes to criticizing Mitt Romney if something criticism-worthy surfaces.  Which it does quite often.  But I must admit that the past week’s criticism of his July 4th holiday pastimes seems somewhat silly.

The critical target has been Governor Romney’s appearance on a jet ski at his New Hampshire vacation home.  Oddly, most criticism has come from Republicans, who evidently fear that photos of Romneys on jet skis call up photos of John Kerry on a wind-sail apparatus, which would connote flip-flopping elitism, which would reinforce the (whoa, who knew?) idea that Mitt Romney is extremely rich. 

Democrats have focused less on the jet ski per se than on the ‘family compound,’ another signifier of 1%-ism, from which the jet ski expedition was launched.

Apparently, no politicos of either party like the jet ski at family compound photo op.

I beg to differ.

For anyone who has lived in the Great Lakes region of the United States, jet skis are not elitist.  They’re like snowmobiles for summer.  Like NASCAR on the water, complete with lots of annoying noise and excessive fuel consumption.   Jet skis are an upper-middle-class toy, coveted by many middle-class- and lower-middle-class people.  [New jet skis cost between $15,000 and $20,000; by the by, a wind-surfing package costs between $1500 and $2000.  That’s an order-of-magnitude elitist difference!]

Similarly, having a house at the lake is not necessarily elitist.  It’s what almost everyone I grew up with (in Wisconsin) either had or wanted to have (except for my fairly impecunious Chicago-area transplant family; my dad couldn’t figure out how to bait a hook or start an outboard, and didn’t care, and my mom would rather have stayed at a hotel, if we could have afforded it).  Such a summer dwelling wasn’t called a ‘family compound.’  It was just a house or cabin or, often, shack within a two-hour drive of one’s primary residence, and almost always it fronted water (the upper Midwest is full of lakes and rivers).

In other words, having a vacation house – and maybe jet skis – is middle-class aspiration, not simply elitist privilege.  Certainly, Governor Romney’s summer residence and vacation play equipment are significantly more deluxe than most.  But since they’re just a bigger and better version of what many people have and a whole lot of people hope to have, trying to sell them (or fear them) as material signifiers of arrogant fat-cat-ism probably won’t work.

Conversely, one thing that Romney campaign handlers may have wanted to accomplish with these photo ops – a positive collective memory flash of the Kennedy family cavorting at Hyannisport – is a no-go from the get-go.  The Kennedy clan was boisterous and uninhibited (for good and ill); they drank a lot and launched themselves into touch football and welcomed tons of friends to join the fun.  The Romney family thinks that driving nails into wooden boards is a knee-slapping good time; there seem to be no close friends invited into the nuclear family vacationing circle. 

The Romneys at Lake Winnipesaukee more closely resemble the Bushes at Kennebunkport, yet the many years of Bush presidencies and vice presidencies have allowed average voters the illusion of familiarity with that particular patrician vacation lifestyle.  Further, Kennebunkport is identified with the elder President Bush (the younger President Bush had his Texas ranch, which never looked like a fun place in the least, unless you were into whacking away at dusty overgrowth in 110 degree heat), and George H.W. Bush’s post-presidential reputation has done nothing but grow positively over the years.  Lacking the covering penumbra of respectful admiration, Romney vacationing in New Hampshire reads only as a very rich man enjoying the fruits of his business acumen in the company of his family.  Kind of voter-neutral, I suspect.

But how different it would have been – and, if the partisan gods are good, will be once the Summer Olympics begin – if the Romneys-at-leisure focus had been on the sport that seems to claim the heart of Candidate Romney’s ‘secret [??] weapon,’ his wife Ann.  That would be the supremely Euro-elitist, very expensive, and (to most jet-skiing or hoops-shooting Americans) ridiculous sport of ‘dressage.’  Or, as those not clued into European nobility’s tradition of having horses execute mincingly precise movements in order to show agility and obedience, “horse ballet.”

Now, THIS is an elitist sport.  Or pastime, or hobby, or money-suck.   Even its name is French (“dressage” roughly means ‘training’ in English).  In contrast to dressage, John Kerry’s wind-surfing – which really isn’t expensive but is not practiced by many Americans – looks like a down-and-dirty-demotic game of kick-the-can.  Dressage horses can cost a quarter of a million dollars, and exhibiting on the international circuit costs about $200,000 a year.  Ann Romney’s dressage horse, Rafalca, has qualified for the upcoming Olympics, so we can be sure to have beaucoup coverage of daintily prancing horses acting as if they’ve been injected with the souls of topiaried dog-show poodles, with top-hatted riders maneuvering their mounts in total silence.

To make matters worse, in 2010 Governor Romney claimed Rafalca as a $77,000 tax deduction.  Over the years, the Romneys have owned at least eight dressage horses, purchases stimulated by riding’s therapeutic value to Ann Romney, who has multiple sclerosis.  It’s probably true that riding horses (along with many other physical activities) is good for people suffering from MS;  it’s probably not true that such a benefit accrues only to riding costly dressage horses.  Further, when Mitt Romney was Governor of Massachusetts, he vetoed a modest MS matching funds bill ($162,368).  The tax-deductible value of his wife’s Olympic-qualified dressage horse is half of this.  So let’s see how this could be spun:  wife with MS = two dressage horses; everyone else in Massachusetts with MS = 0 dressage horses.  Actually, since Mrs. Romney owns a one-third interest in Rafalca, the horse would be worth well over $200,000, which is more than the entire Massachusetts MS bill. 

To be fair, dressage is Ann Romney’s passion, and her husband supports it.  It’s not clear that Governor Romney particularly likes any sports.  Stepping into the 2002 Utah Winter Olympics was more a matter of problem solving, resume building, and helping a predominantly Mormon state salvage its business reputation than of being passionate about ice hockey or the biathlon.  Moments of candor during the past Republican Primary suggest that what Mitt Romney likes about sports (or ‘sport’) is hobnobbing with owners of sports teams. 

And then we have President Obama.  It’s obvious that he’s an unabashed basketball fan who enjoys pick-up hoops probably above all other choses sportif.  He’s an unrepentant Chicago White Sox fan.  He’s also become a recreational golfer, like many Presidents before him (there must be something about strolling around chemically enhanced greens that brings a feeling of geopolitical peace).  President Obama doesn’t pretend to engage in every sport – he’s got his favorites, and he lets us know what they are (bowling, as we all remember from the calamitous series of gutterballs in 2008, not being one of them).  But he strikes most people – even those who disagree with him politically – as being an authentic sports fan and an enthusiastic participant in those sports he’s good at, or that he simply likes.

So we can relate to President Obama’s sports bona fides.  And to his wife’s (albeit grudgingly, for those of us not always engaged in active lifestyles that are good for us), she of mean double-dutch and callisthenic abilities plus general healthy athleticism, all of which costs almost zero money to pursue.  And to his daughters’, who enjoy soccer and basketball, like so many other American children do.

It’s probably odd that one criterion U.S. citizens employ when selecting a president is attitude toward/participation in sports.  To me, this is less disconcerting than litmus tests about participation in this or that organized religion, because sports fandom is a capacious form of secular bonding . . .  and it doesn’t much matter what sport it is as long as it’s a sport that a whole lot of voters like, or watch, or participate in.  The ‘who do you want to have a beer with’ question morphs into a ‘who do you want to play X sport with/watch X sport with’ question.

With golf versus jet skis, I think President Obama and Governor Romney score a tie.  With basketball versus dressage?   Slam dunk!

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