Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Greatest Soap Opera of All

(Image: Dancing with the Stars at Whatever It Is, I'm Against It)

Gore Vidal wrote, about 35 years ago:
Some years ago a friend remarked to a brand-new President's wife (a woman of unique charm, wit, sensibility, and good grooming) that there was no phrase in our language which so sets the teeth on edge as "First Lady."

"Oh, how true!" said that lady, after the tiniest of pauses. "I keep telling the operators at the White House not to call me that, but they just love saying 'First Lady." And of course Mrs. E++++++++r always insisted on being called that."

According to one Ralph Geoffrey Newman ... "the term 'First Lady' became a popular one after the
Lady in the Land .... December 11, 1911." The phrase was in use, however, as early as the Ladyhood of Mrs. Rutherford B. ("Lemonade Lucy") Hayes.

Martha Washington contented herself with the unofficial (hence seldom omitted) title "Lady" Washington. Mrs. James Monroe took a crack at regal status, receiving guests on a dais with something suspiciously like a coronet in her tousled hair.

[Matters of Fact and Fiction (Essays 1973-1976), Random House, 1975, p. 175; for the benefit of the history- or age-impaired, the "lady" Vidal refers to in the first paragraphs is Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, later Onassis.]
In the latest Nation, Katha Pollitt wrote:
In the American Prospect, Dana Goldstein recently argued that being first lady should be treated like the job it is and awarded a salary. Michelle is "a public face of the Obama administration," working behind the scenes to rally support for her husband's programs--and she endures a schedule of ceremonial duties and photo ops that would put most women on Prozac and that are not optional. She can't decide to skip dinner with the Democratic chairmen of Congressional committees and watch TV with the girls instead. If first ladies were paid--Goldstein suggests that the money could come from lowering the president's $400,000 salary--we might respect them more. Meanwhile, we should be counting ourselves lucky that 
Michelle Obama is working for free and let her wear whatever she wants.
If the President's wife is the First Lady, shouldn't the President be the First Lord? (First Gentleman, maybe.)

It still surprises me, just a little, when I realize how many Americans still miss having royalty: the big, really real people we can fantasize about as though they were super-dolls in a dollhouse. The appeal of crowns also escapes me, though I think I shared it as a child; but as an adult I listened with amazement when a friend told me how a local drag queen broke into another's home to steal the crown the latter had won in a major drag competition. The thief would then sit in front of a mirror at home from time to time, setting the crown on his head, and admiring himself. And then on a local gospel program I happened to hear a spiritual about the glories of Heaven, which would include not only shoes but a crown for each and every one of the saints. (What would be the point of a crown, even if you agree that they're ubercool, if everybody could have one?)

And if anything, it's the political right, the self-styled conservatives who hark back to the founders and their putative rejection of royalty and aristocracy in favor of equality and Jeffersonian yeomen farmers, yet these same apostles of democracy were the ones who fussed when Michelle Obama briefly touched the sacred person of Queen Betty II (which didn't bother Betty -- but when Barack Hussein O'Bama bowed deeply to the Saudi king, they were infuriated about that too); who yowled with outrage that Barack Hussein gave Her Majesty an iPod (at her own request, it appears) and a songbook signed by Richard Rodgers (even though at least one of them [via] didn't know who Rodgers was, or why the Queen would care, as, again, it appears she did). I mean, hell, I'm a Dirty Fucking Hippie who loves rock'n'roll more than show tunes (thus flouting my heritage as a Homo-American), but I know who Richard Rodgers was. What classy gift did the Queen give the Obamas, I hear you ask, showing their innate superiority to the American upstart? Why, a signed, silver-framed photograph of Herself and her consort. Sweet. I'm sure there are drag queens all around America who'd love to break into the White House to score that photo for their trailers.

Now, this is the sort of thing that our American corporate news media think is important. I couldn't say whether most Americans agree. I mean, it is easier to write about such trivia (after all, I'm doing it now!) than the issues involved in the G20 talks, the popular protest against those talks, the ongoing bailout of the American financial sector (to be extended to the world), the stark rise in unemployment not only here but worldwide (see also here and here and here), the escalation of Obama's war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and so on. Oh, and rebranding (thanks to PunkAssBlog).

But even the liberal reporters and bloggers have a thing about Presidents' wives, who for a long time have been more attractive and seemingly more liberal than their husbands. From Betty Ford to Barbara Bush (who later fell from grace) and now Michelle Obama, it's been hard to find a comfortable accommodation between sympathizing with a wife being in the public glare just because she's married to a successful politician, and overreacting to her every nicey-nice remark, as though she and not the First Lord made policy. Even Laura Bush got some benefit of the doubt from the left, since it was hard for anyone out of diapers not to behave better in public than her husband. Barb at the Mahablog reminds her readers how Dubya behaved when visiting the British royals, and you can hear her relief (shared with so many Obamanistas) that at last we have a President we can be proud of, after eight years of overpriced trailer trash in the White House. (If you ignore the warmongering, the coziness with Wall Street, and so on; but evidently she can.) I was rather more interested in Whatever It Is I'm Against It's mention of Prince Philip's boorishness, and not only to the Obamas -- he evidently has a long and colorful history. Whatever Betty thought of Bush's helicopters tracking up the lawn, I'll bet that Phil and Dubya got along swimmingly, like the spoiled upper-class greyboys they are at heart. What my middle-class liberal confrères and soeurs forget is that being an asshole in public is a hallmark of perfectly normal, transclass, transnational Boy Culture. Which is probably why the boys of the corporate media always loved Bush, McCain and Reagan, and can't forgive Obama for having better manners. (Bombing children doesn't count as bad manners, remember.)

But hey, forget all that -- did you hear that Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney just appeared onstage together for the first time in seven years, at a benefit for the David Lynch Foundation in support of Transcendental Mediation? (Yes, that David Lynch.)
But it was Lynch's appearance behind a Perspex lectern that provided the most arresting part of the warm-up. Wearing a suit, tie and enlightened expression, it looked at times as if he might fly out into the auditorium, conduct a seance or announce plans to invade a small country. Accompanied by the actor Laura Dern and with the gift of distance that all celebrities bring to world problems, Lynch explained how state education might benefit from transcendental meditation classes in which even a six-year-old could be taught to perform a "walking mantra". The director of Twin Peaks and Eraserhead then showed a public health-style video of cheesed-off-looking pupils who, block capitals informed us, suffered from STRESS. What they needed was a CHANGE and a chance to TRANSFORM.
Image from the Mirror, which reports: "Sir Paul said he had practised TM for 40 years. 'In moments of madness, it has helped me find moments of serenity,' he said." And back at the Guardian: "Mike Love, a former member of the Beach Boys, spoke of his conversion to Lynch's cause. 'The possibility of world peace,' he said, 'that got to me.'" Oh, dude, like who wouldn't it get?

For fun, read the first two pages of Mike Davis's great Late Victorian Holocausts (Verso, 2001) on Ulysses S. Grant's progress, with his family, through the world in 1877. "Wherever they supped," Davis writes, "the Grants left a legendary trail of gaucheries."