Writers, stop begging President Obama to tell us a simple bedtime story
August 17, 2011
There’s been lots of hot debate here and elsewhere about President Obama’s rhetoric strategy. The latest criticism also attempts to be constructive. It comes from Cleveland ad man Jim Sollisch, via an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor.
He compares Obama to post-modernist writers like Faulkner and Joyce. Like them, “He offered no plot line. No story arc. There were no heroes and no villains. Just flawed humans mucking around in a complicated world.”
Sollisch concludes: “I hope our Story Teller in Chief finds the plot soon and tells us a story we can believe in, a story a majority of the country can rally around.”
Well, don’t all our inner children long to be told a wonderful bedtime story with a happy ending?
I, too, hold out hope that President Obama can push a kind of rhetorical restart button and wash away all the smoke and fog and dirt and grime that’s gotten all over this presidency in its first three years.
But I also know that the reality is, we are just flawed humans mucking around in a complicated world. And as an adult, I pride myself on maintaining a grasp of reality. I bet you do, too.
There is a precedent for an attempted presidential communication mulligan.
It’s the tremendously game but ultimately disastrous effort by President Carter to hit the reset button at a similar juncture in his own presidency.
In a televised speech to the nation, Carter informed Americans that their confidence had waned, that their values were bankrupt and that their lives had lost all meaning. “We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose,” he said.
And what did Americans need to do in order to solve their personal and national “spiritual crisis”? They needed to embark on the “most massive peacetime commitment” in their nation’s history, by creating alternative fuels and achieving energy independence.
A pretty clear story. And pretty strongly told. (Watch the speech. It’s intense to the point of eeriness.) But it wasn’t just too little too late. It was presumptuous. It was absurdly heavy-handed. Telling Americans their lives were bereft of spiritual meaning was a vast overreach. He was our president, not our preacher. And prescribing a single solution to a crisis he had just invented with his words—it was an impossibly arrogant thing to do.
Despite what the writers of the world want to believe, an out-of-the-blue come-to-Jesus speech from President Obama would fail just as disastrously as Carter’s now infamous “crisis-of-confidence speech.”
We can argue over the drinking table about how Obama should have framed his presidency at the outset, and whether a single frame would have neatly surrounded four years of mucking around in the complicated world.
But I’m afraid that the only way he can play once-upon-a-time at this late stage is if there’s a shocking disaster—financial, natural or ballistic—that’s profound and terrifying enough to make Americans really willing to sit like children and hear a simple story of true heroes, real villains and the proverbial but elusive “story we can believe in.”
I don’t wish for a thing like that. You don’t, either.
But if you happen to wish to see President Obama reelected, you ought to criticize him with more care, or the catastrophic crisis that clarifies the story could begin next November. —DM