Much of the reason Maureen Dowd of The New York Times is so scathingly funny is that there's usually some potent, blunt truth behind her clever, jibing prose. So, while we laugh, we also take her point, which is often, on reflection, all too serious.
And sometimes her pronouncements are fundamentally simple, as in her column published the day after the final debate between Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party's front-runner, Barack Obama.
What Dowd captured so well was the idea that our most inspiring (and often most effective) presidents simply seem "comfortable in their own skins." These are the gifted individuals who give off a rare, subtle signal to Americans: one of self- possession. Self- possession projects leadership, which in turn reassures and inspires voters.
So when, in desperation, Hillary showed her claws the other night, I think it sounded her candidacy's death knell. Bright as she is, she came off like a spoiled child who could not understand why nobody wanted to attend her birthday party. And by contrast, the unflappable Obama seemed only more presidential.
What of this building Obama phenomenon?
Various people have accused him of being too young, untried, and less specific on meaty issues than the supposedly divine Ms. C. While Americans want and deserve sound strategy and action on the mess created under Bush, smart Presidents, FDR and JFK among them, used prose and charm to present broader views on policy without being so specific as to limit their flexibility to implement initiatives according to emerging conditions. (Roosevelt was a particular master at this, and though wily and secretive when necessary, he served his country well.)
Beyond leadership, assurance, and wisdom beyond his years, why will Obama win in November? I know I'm not the only one to note the parallels between the Obama drive and the candidacy of JFK. In 1960, after a decade of Cold War hysteria and a beloved though aging -- and ailing -- president who lived out part of his retirement in office playing golf, the country was ready for dramatic change. JFK would be our youngest elected president, our first Catholic president, with not as much to show on experience at the federal level than then vice president Nixon. He had in fact spent a good portion of his Senate career preparing to run for president.
But he excited the youth base, and soon, like Obama, many of their parents. There was idealism, vitality, and charisma emanating from the man. And he won, not by much, but close only counts in horseshoes. And without doubt television helped him win, just as it has helped Obama against Hillary, and will continue to help him when confronting the aging, phlegmatic John McCain, who may come off even more snide than Hillary.
Once again, outstanding political movies, in attempting to mirror the reality of that dizzying world, often portray this quality of presidential inner confidence, or lack thereof, with dead-on accuracy.
Even going back a while, if you watch John Ford's elegiac Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), you see the essence of that martyred president's inner calm melded with a keen and curious mind, and that elusive, God-given ability to get people to trust and respect him. These qualities were already in evidence when Abe was a small-town lawyer, legislator, and debater, and they would carry this gangly, unlikely soul of humble birth to the highest office in the land. Recently, on an AOL poll, he was voted our best president.
The groundbreaking political documentary Primary (1960) was prescient in taking us behind the velvet rope of the road to Camelot, making the viewer feel like part of a movement, and showing JFK aggressively campaigning like a born machine politician, helping to dispel the candidate's rich, playboy image. One indelible image: early in the campaign, the candidate is standing on a street corner, and an older woman passes right by him, refusing to shake his hand. He would have had my vote in that single moment.
More uncertain and embattled presidents are portrayed to excellent effect in two political thrillers of the early sixties, when the paranoia of the 50's still lingered. In 1962's Advise and Consent, you see a shaky Franchot Tone struggling to carry the burden of office in the face of unexpected scandal, while clearly failing in health ( perhaps a throwback to Ike, and his bad heart). Next, in John Frankenheimer's crackerjack Seven Days In May (1964), Fredric March, only slightly more vigorous, must endure the insult to him and the office of having a military coup attempted during his presidency- by a ruthless, rock-hard Burt Lancaster, no less.
Counterpoint: Henry Fonda, a quarter century after playing the young Lincoln, portrays a sharp, cool-under-fire President confronting Armageddon in Sidney Lumet's still unnerving Fail-Safe (1964). There the viewer has no doubt that the right man in sitting in the Presidential chair.
Then you see the genius of FDR as an image-maker in absentia in the stunning
documentary, The Eleanor Roosevelt Story"(1965), a DVD that should be shown in every American classroom. Eleanor was widely known as her husband's eyes, ears -- and legs. Though her outspokenness could rankle her husband, no doubt FDR understood the image value of showcasing a First Lady of such intelligence, dignity and heart. Hillary Clinton of all people even provides the film's post-commentary, citing ER as one of her role models. I'd argue this revelation was not reflected much in that last debate.
Then the sea change that occurred with Vietnam and the Nixon era inevitably brought a more cynical, jaundiced view of our political system. Case in point: a bitter, post-resignation Tricky Dick gets brilliantly portrayed by Philip Baker Hall in the late Robert Altman's lacerating Secret Honor (1985). Hall flawlessly executes a one-man show: his Nixon, bitter and alone, rails against enemies real and imagined, with his only props being a rapidly depleted bottle of Chivas and a host of security cameras that guarded the Nixon compound in San Clemente.
Ironically, as Ms. Dowd readily acknowledges in her piece, even with his exhaustively documented peccadilloes, Hillary's own husband Bill had that "comfortable in his own skin" persona; specifically the ability to connect with ordinary middle-class people emotionally. You watch the fascinating The War Room (1993), and not only do you love the candidate himself, but also his primary handlers at the time, the acerbic James Carville and youthful, razor-sharp George Stephanapoulos. Yes, you even admire Hillary as her husband's closest behind the scenes confidante in the election. (It appears now she does her best work behind the scenes).
I truly believe that Obama will go all the way in November. Maureen Dowd is right: the candidate is comfortable in his own skin. And he represents a much needed agent of change which could help restore the national prestige which the Bush administration has steadily squaundered for seven long, painful years, both here and abroad. In all, Obama is feels like the right candidate at the right time.
And with this prediction, I discover I feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin too.