Entry from August 20, 2010

Honestly, now, enough about the mosque, you might be thinking. I know I am. How can this relatively trivial matter have become such a media feeding frenzy? That it has done so is all the more astonishing because the battle lines have been drawn virtually since the first shot was fired. The opposers of the mosque are said to be racists and anti-Muslim bigots who want to repeal the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion while the supporters are would-be defilers of America’s sacred ground kowtowing to jihadis and crypto-terrorists. Once the argument has hardened around such extremes as these, you’ve got to wonder what more can there be to say? And yet, like everybody else, I find just can’t leave it alone, and I think I know why. The problem is that contemporary politics has been set up to make everything a matter of principle — First amendment rights! Freedom of religion! — when most of political decision-making really has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with prudence and a feel for the pulse of the public that is necessary for any leader.

As I suggest in my book, Media Madness, I think this is because of the media’s need to manufacture scandal wherever it is possible to do so, or even where it is not possible. A couple of weeks ago in the Sunday Telegraph of London, Nigel Farndale criticized the new British Prime Minister, David Cameron, for declining to wear a morning suit — still the universal custom of his class — to his sister’s wedding. Hypocrisy! The unforgivable sin of the media. The wedding took place during the heat of the election campaign and the inevitable photo of the Tory leader looking like a toff in his tail coat would have been a sure vote-loser among the ordinary Britons on whom he was relying to vote Tory for the first time in nearly two decades. According to Mr Farndale, Mr Cameron has also given up fox-hunting and grouse-shooting, as these are also seen as upper-class sports, though he continues to fish, because fishing is “the people’s sport.” Mr Farndale says he was himself once characterized as “Lord Snooty” by a rival publication for wearing a morning suit to a wedding, so he can sympathize, but he is still critical of the Prime Minister. “It’s understandable, then, but also a little demeaning,” he writes. “Could Cameron really not get away with wearing tails to his sister’s wedding? . . .. If Cameron’s decision to give up shooting was prompted by moral scruple, I would have much more respect for him. But public image? Hmm.”

What I want to ask is why it is necessarily better — for a politician, mind — to do something for moral scruple than for public image? Public image for a political leader means increasing your sense of identification with those you lead (and theirs with you), and especially those who are not already in your natural constituency. This means behaving in some particular ways and not in others. It is an inevitable part of the job. And yet the political culture of today regards it — as it does so much else — as vaguely scandalous. Consider the reaction to Michelle Obama’s Spanish vacation. Politically it was not a wise move, but the first family’s media apologists framed the matter in terms of the rights of the First Lady to vacation where she likes. As with the mosque, the question of rights was true but irrelevant — and the significant detail was that neither member of the first couple could see that.

In a mildly critical column in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd quoted David Axelrod as saying that “not everything is political theater” and agreed that the Obamas shouldn’t have to poll, as the Clintons did, to figure out where to go on vacation.” She too missed the point. For a President (or his family) everything is political theater. It’s not a choice you make but simply the fact. Bill Clinton’s polling to decide where to go on vacation was ridiculed, I believe, not because he was thinking politically about his private life and his private time but because he should have known where to go on vacation without having to take a poll on the matter. Miss Dowd herself recognizes this when she writes of Michelle Obama:

When health care passed after a difficult year and the president celebrated with his staff on the Truman Balcony, the first lady was with her daughters on Broadway to see Memphis. When the BP oil spill stained the White House, making the president seem so impotent that he had to make his first national address from the Oval Office, the first lady was playing with her mother and daughters in Los Angeles, staying at the Beverly Wilshire. She was taking in a Lakers game the night of his address. During the campaign, Michelle tried to offset her husband’s existential detachment with familial warmth. Now that he holds the world’s loneliest office, he needs that more than ever.

The sad thing is he seems unlikely to get such warmth since Mrs Obama turns out to be too much like her husband after all. Like him, she appears to be capable of thinking only in terms of rights and principles when it comes to deciding what is the right thing to do and not in terms of the necessary compromises and consideration for others’ feelings that is the mark of the true leader.

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