It was way back in February of last year, and the Democratic National Committee was holding a cattle call for all the candidates in a suburban hotel outside Washington.
The room was stuffed to the bursting point with pols and press, people were jostling to get in, others were shouting outside in the hall, and it was all kind of raucous.
“You know, if you look at all the cameras gathered around and the clickin’ of the photographers, the pundits who are collected, sometimes you feel like you are part of a reality TV show,” Obama told the audience. “I feel like this is ‘American Idol’ or ‘Survivor,’ and you got to figure out if you’re going to go to Hollywood or you’re going to be voted off the island. But that’s not why I’m here.”
At the time, I wrote that this was the most “intriguing” line of any candidate’s speech. But I also wondered if Obama was going to be another of those very bright candidates who realize how flawed and downright silly the presidential election process can be and aren’t willing to play along with it.
Are there “Hollywood” aspects to electing a president? Yeah, that’s why they say politics is show business for ugly people. (Except not many ugly people get elected in politics anymore, which is a sign of just how Hollywood it has become.)
But while Obama went on to show himself to be a great speaker and a good campaigner, there were certain aspects of campaigning that still troubled him.
In an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams last week, Williams laughingly brought up Obama’s questionable bowling skills and his wearing a tie while campaigning with farmers.
Obama didn’t laugh off his reply. “I think the American people are smarter than that,” Obama said. “The bowling’s a wonderful example.” Obama said he was having a great time talking to voters and signing autographs when “some woman” invited him to bowl a couple of frames and “although I haven’t bowled in 25 years,” he went and he did so (bowling a 37 in seven frames).
“And I’m out there and I’m having a great time, you know? And suddenly, this becomes some big sort of signifier of whether or not I’m in tune with blue-collar culture,” Obama complained.
He went on: “Sometimes I wear a tie, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I wear a flag pin, sometimes I don’t. You know, sometimes I like a burger and a beer. Sometimes a glass of wine and a steak is good. But this doesn’t have much to do with how I’m gonna lead the country.”
And you know what? Obama is absolutely, positively right. And you know what? It doesn’t really matter that he is right.
The process is the process, the game is the game. And you can spend your time exposing how flawed the game is, or you can spend your time winning it.
In the past few weeks, it has become clear to me that Obama intends to win it. In West Virginia, he shot some pool at a billiards hall, and when he sank a ball on the break and then pocketed two more, he said, “That’s a sign of a misspent youth.”
(This did not lead to victory for him in West Virginia. But the game is a long one.)
While Obama was campaigning in Oregon this week, a local reporter asked him: “If you had a tattoo, what would it be and where would you put it?”
Obama replied that if he were forced to get a tattoo, “I suppose I’d have to have Michelle’s name tattooed somewhere very discreet.”
A funny answer. And so much better than saying, “This doesn’t have much to do with how I’m gonna lead the country.”
We want our presidents to be real and human. They don’t always have to tell us what we ant to hear. And voters can be much more understanding than candidates sometimes give them credit for.
Before the crucial West Virginia primary in 1960, Hubert Humphrey denounced John F. Kennedy as “a millionaire’s son who had never worked a day in his life.”
Kennedy was shaking hands with coal miners in the state one day, when one grizzled old miner held onto his hand and wouldn’t let go. “Is it true you’re a millionaire’s son who never worked a day in your life?” the miner asked.
Kennedy gulped and said, “Yeah, I guess so.”
The miner slapped him on the back and said, “Lemme tell you, son, you ain’t missed a thing.”