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Obama Loses His Cool

Why did our Spock-like president bow to public lunacy in his interview with Matt Lauer?

06.09.10 12:01 PM ET

Many were probably made happy or excited when discovering that they could suddenly identify with Barack Obama because he didn’t “hold back” when interviewed by Matt Lauer on the Today show on Tuesday. “Hey, man, the dude told Matt he was looking for some ASS to kick.” Now Obama could be trusted to better handle the British Petroleum Gulf disaster. He had gotten publicly pissed, proving all wrong who doubted the proof anger always provides.

That is pure intellectual dog snot. I was actually irritated when I heard the president say what he did because of what it seemed to mean. The drop below his signal eloquence was a submission to the kind of minstrelsy demanded of anyone, high or low, these days. That is, if one hopes to be popular in our time.

Click Below to Watch a Clip of Obama on Today

The 24-hour news cycle demands such hot ice cream because any version of the outlandish is preferred over being “cool.” Cool is not well received in a rock 'n' roll culture where the over-amplified has become the norm and everything else an extension of melodrama or slapstick.

To be considered “sincere,” one must get hot for the cameras. Or switch into a suit of fire when it is time to flash and dazzle.

Obama initially disturbed many because he did not seem “authentic.” He was accused of missing qualities “like the black people in my neighborhood.” In order to come off as “a real brother” to certain kinds of black people, almost anyone, whether running for president or dog catcher, has to swallow and throw up gallons of hot sauce until the taste for circumscribed darkie spice is satisfied.

Beyond that, the majority of Americans have been hustled until they prefer overheated entertainment styles of supposed “blackness.” Many feel cheated unless assured that they will soon be served particularly pungent Negro sweat—quick and in a hurry. Like any form of slapstick, its greatest burden is its obviousness.

Any black person of superior intelligence or equally superior skill can become used to the experience of condescension. Condescension can be irritating in its expression of hysteria and imbecility, but that comes with freedom of speech. Once Americans could safely say any variation on “screw the king” or publicly express suspicion of anyone supposedly in charge, elected or not, we were culturally speeding away from fundamental European ways.

Yet something unique to our ethnic confusion is at work when this freedom to be obnoxious is taken by white people and used against almost anyone not white. No matter what a Negro knows and can actually do, the most ignorant white person might feel that this person was and would always be an inferior.

While we are all less overshadowed by color than we have ever been as a nation, that very special iceberg of bigoted assumptions does not melt to a cube very quickly.

I am almost sure that some of what Obama meant in his response to Matt Lauer had to do with Lauer saying the president’s supposedly cool style was interpreted as a lack of felt compassion or empathy. Lauer even advised the president of the United States that he needed to "kick some butt." I started getting angry then because I had never heard a news anchor and host speak that crudely to the chief of state. Those words felt no more than a lame example of phony "in your face" theatrics. I doubt even someone as devoid of elegance and class as any pop star seeking constant attention through the contrivances of perpetual shock, would speak in public like that to the president. But ours is a time when an affable mediocrity like Lauer can get some respect for "pushing the envelope."

Though he disappointed when finally submitting to the mask of theatrical anger, it was very important that Obama emphasized how indifferent he was to providing entertainment for cable networks. The president considered what was happening in the Gulf too serious and had, by the way, been down there discussing the consequences of the matter with local fishermen before most of the presently enflamed talking heads had even heard that there was trouble in the water.

Those waters will not be free of trouble any time soon. But it is unfortunate that we are so trapped in the conventions of exaggerated fluff that one can lose points by being calm, serious, and massively intelligent. In terms of feeling, one of the greatest public orations I ever heard was the address given by Reverend Calvin Butts in a 9/11 memorial event held at Yankee Stadium soon after the towers fell.

Butts is not an exponent of the hopped up and shrieking black pulpit style, which can be moving if felt as more than a convention used to "get house," or hop up the audience. Sounding so American that he transcended ethnicity while deep in the well of its emotion, Butts sonorously recited no more than the words of a national standard, beginning with, “My country tis of thee…”

It was a magisterial high point in our culture.

Perhaps that is what we need to listen for instead of being made into marks by entertaining rabble rousers from the left or the right. At their most irresponsible they are hard-shelled sentimentalists, whose heavy metal exhortations have significantly marred the national dialogue.

Breaking an addiction to their cynical bathos can begin by experiencing the genuine as it arrives in the voice of Mike Williams during his 60 Minutes interview. Williams told of escaping the British Petroleum rig as it was about to explode into eternity and would take 11 people with it. One's breathing halts while being transformed by what life demanded of this man if he was to prevail over literal hell and high water.

These people of feeling are always feeling connected to one another, from the president to Williams leaping into burning oil on the ocean from about 90 feet. They are as American as anyone and anything else. Such individuals are also examples of what serious people put into the air of our lives when they speak but never leave human value behind in the interest of pop culture clichés.

Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. Next year the first volume of his long-awaited biography of Charlie Parker will appear.