Mar 20, 2009

The Cool Presidency and The Dumbest Guys in the Room



President Obama's historic appearance on Jay Leno last night was another prominent gesture that indicated once again just how different Obama's presidency is from his predecessors. The ease which with Obama interacts with pop culture is one of the many things that helps to make him our first "cool" president.

I realize that Slick Willie Clinton helped make a name for himself back in the day by appearing on Arsenio Hall, wearing his dark Ray Bans, while playing his axe, not to mention his love of all things Hollywood while in office, but I still think that Obama's relationship to pop culture operates differently. Clinton always seemed to be seeking Hollywood's approval to me. I didn't get the impression that he ever watched Arsenio Hall, though he did recognize that appearing on the show at the time was good for votes. He was not cool as much as he wanted to use his relationship with Hollywood to make himself seem cool by association. If anything Clinton seemed fascinated that his power allowed him to mingle with those of the Hollywood elite. Forgive me, but it's hard to associate cool with someone who originally hails from Hope Arkansas.

On the other hand, Obama is so cool that he can go on Leno and make fun of all the seemingly unnecessary traps of power that now accompany his every move since becoming president. The joke about "life in the bubble" and the fact that the Secret Service wouldn't let him walk 750 yards to check out the venue he was scheduled to speak in was hilarious; especially the part about the doctor walking behind him with the defibrillator. Obama's laughter here seemed to indicate how absurd he thought all of this pomp and circumstance really is.

Perhaps the best indication of how cool Obama is involves his recent appearance sitting courtside, drinking a brew, while watching his Chicago Bulls stink up the joint against the Washington Wizards a few weeks ago.

I remember Slick Willie sitting in a luxury box above the action while watching his home state University of Arkansas Razorbacks win the NCAA basketball title back in 1994. Obama is a real b-ball fan who knows that the action looks a lot better from a floor seat than it does from a box.

Yes, a real b-ball fan can comfortably fill out his Final Four brackets on television, not worrying about who might be offended by his selections. In case you missed it, Duke's Coach K seemed to be annoyed in his comments regarding Obama's selection of K's arch rival the North Carolina Tar Heels as eventual NCAA champs. Obama knows that by picking any team to win it might be read as showing favoritism, but he's real enough to know that acting like he supports every team just because he is supposed to looks fake. He's a fan, so he is able to remain a fan, without compromising his day job. Slick Willie, a man so calculated and political that he smoked weed but managed not to inhale and once famously asked what the meaning of "is" is, would never have been so confident as to allow himself the space to demonstrate his true love for the game of b-ball without consulting his pollsters first. (By the way, Coach K, stay in your lane! You weren't going to win the title anyway.)

While the Leno appearance and filling out the Final Four brackets has demanded a great deal of attention this week, it is the bonuses being paid to AIG executives that has dominated the news. I would be remiss if I didn't deal with this here also.

To me, a big part of the problem with the arrogance and greed of corporate America lies in often uttered phrases like "the smartest guys in the room" as it pertains to the so-called financial wizards of Wall Street. I'm sorry but if these Wall Street casino capitalists were actually smart then the economy wouldn't be in the shape that it is in now. The system in place let these idiots run amok, so much so that they ruined everything in sight. They had the green light and they took it, even when the light had turned red. Since the dawn of the Reagan counter revolution the casino capitalists have had free reign to do what they wanted to do. They were never really that smart, though they might have been slick. Now that the world's economy is the hot mess that it is, the smartest guys in the room look like the dumbest clowns on earth.

The first time I remember hearing the phrase in question was in relationship to Enron executives like George W. Bush's now conveniently deceased homie Kenny Boy, Kenneth Lay, and Jeffrey Skilling. They were so smart that they built a Fortune 500 company on sleight of hand, not unlike Bernie Madoff's ponzi scheme. The current global economic crisis came about for the same reasons that both Enron and Madoff were eventually exposed, devious crooks with a license to steal bluffed so much that it became evident after a while that they weren't even playing with cards anymore. All of this reminds me of that old Wayans Brothers' Homeboys Shopping Network skit where Damon's claims of mo' money, mo' money, where laughable because his nonsense was so transparent. The difference is, we knew that Damon was clowin', but the casino capitalists could hide behind this smartest guys in the room foolishness until it was almost too late.

Much of what passes for business on Wall Street is nothing more than the equivalent of legal crack dealing. The only difference is, if they catch you with a small amount of crack they send to jail and throw away the key, if you damn near bankrupt the globe, they give you a bonus. Again, it's not about being smart, it's about being slick. These are two different things. If people wouldn't accord these crooks so much deference then maybe we could see clearly that what they are doing is nothing more than what a gambler does at a crap table, play a game of chance where sometimes you do indeed get lucky. Maybe if we raise our standards for what qualifies as smart then we'll avoid investing so much power in the hands of casino capitalists who mistake greed for intelligence.

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