Barack Obama I: Style Icon

in purple people| stardust

First in a series of posts on the junior senator from Illinois.

Gary Cooper: Perfect. It’s a matter of fact. Everything about you is perfect.

Audrey Hepburn: I’m too thin and my ears stick out, my teeth are crooked and my neck’s much too long.

Gary Cooper: Maybe so, but I love the way it all hangs together.

Love in the Afternoon

Gary Cooper just can't resist the mysterious ingenue

Like Cooper’s character in Love in the Afternoon, we’re terribly jaded: we’ve lived the capitalist high life and rolled with all sorts of exotic dames, Swedish twins, Spanish princesses, you name it. Frightened Republicans, cranky pessimistic Democrats and The Main-Stream Media alike may ridicule us for our sudden infatuation with the new pair of ankles in town, but what they don’t understand is that like Ms. Hepburn, Senator Obama is the real deal. You can get to Hepburn’s waif-weight on a steady diet of club-hopping, methamphetamine and cocaine cut with strawberry Quik, or you can get there by gnawing on tulip bulbs in the basement during the Dutch Famine. You could achieve the grace and poise of Hepburn by hiring a personal trainer and doing pilates every day or you could get there by cutting short your training as a professional ballet dancer due to poverty-induced malnutrition. Similarly, you could give speeches as well as Obama by hiring a stable-full of professional speech writers, or you could get there by spending a lifetime reading literature and honing the craft of writing. You could adopt a message of hope, non-partisanship and reconciliation after consulting with a team of highly paid pollsters, or you could hold such a message as a conviction, a lesson learned through personal experience and public service.

The mood around the Obamanan has a lunatic edge, primarily because it is far too difficult for anyone to believe in the notion of the genuine article. Pundits are disturbed by his unrelentingly rock star appeal because it hasn’t been hand-crafted by them. Even ‘experts’ and journalists who are ostensibly on his side are poised and ready to spring into a much anticipated maelstrom of negativity when the time comes. No one wants to be the naive one who canonized the rising star too soon. In anticipation of the fall of Obama ( cause for speculation as early as March 2006 by the NYT), everyone is jumping on the superficiality bandwagon as fast as they can. We are deluged daily by a perplexing array of critiques of Obama’s physical appearance (eye candy!), clothing (business casual!) and name (Iraq! Saddam Hussein! Osama bin Laden!). The name bit, an embarrassing act of desperation, results of course from the rightist spin machine: maybe we can get people to think he has something to do with those things! True, many people still do not know who Barack Obama is and give rise to news reports like this and this that make us fear still further for the intelligence of our populace, but lack of name recognition isn’t the sort of thing that lasts long around a public figure who appears on Oprah,the Daily Show and Larry King, and introduces Monday Night Football.

Obama graces the cover of Men's Vogue

And then there’s Obama and fashion. Maureen Dowd, doing her best come-hither-Barack wink, while simultaneously not wanting to look dumb if he turns out not to be all that, seems to have gotten the ball rolling. With her piece ‘Project Obama,’ she warns the object of her affections not to get carried away with all the adulation lest he come to appear too light in the loafers for the job of Commander-in-Chief. This time her TV Guide metaphor-du-jour is Project Runway, and she wrings her hands at the prospect of Obama, with his Annie Leibovitz photo shoot for Men’s Vogue, appearances on Oprah and a little too much time spent at the gym, ending up as everyone’s favorite celebrity guest star. She closes with the dramatic and thought-provoking punchline, “Does Barack Obama want to be a celebrity or a man of history, or is there no longer any difference?”

Obama business casual

The fashionisto in Obama is all the rage now, most strangely in this

exchange between Wolf Blitzer and Jeff Greenfield, which Greenfield now

claims was a joke:

GREENFIELD: The senator was in New Hampshire over the weekend, sporting what’s getting to be the classic Obama look. Call it business casual, a jacket, a collared shirt, but no tie….But, in the case of Obama, he may be walking around with a sartorial time bomb. Ask yourself, is there any other major public figure who dresses the way he does? Why, yes. It is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, unlike most of his predecessors, seems to have skipped through enough copies of “GQ” to find the jacket-and-no-tie look agreeable.

Ahmadinejad tying his shoes

Whether or not this was, in fact, a joke, clearly the most insulting part of it all is being compared to the distinctly unfelicitous sartorial style of Ahmadinejad, who, politics aside, is a man who wears white socks with leather shoes and whose suits and dress shirts clearly contain no small number of synthetic fibers.

In fact, it is the article in Men’s Vogue which takes no interest in Obama’s sartorial choices, and the Annie Leibovitz photo spread unveils the Junior Senator from Illinois wearing his own clothing, with no apparent attempts at pre-shoot styling. The combined article and photographs contain so little reference to appearances or the fashion world that one is led to wonder just what the gang over at Vogue is up to. As one skeptical participant in the Men’s Vogue discussion boards, sir_elton, reflects plaintively, “Obama didn’t look right. He wasn’t pressed. Not presidential in my book. Who chose those clothes, anyway? Was that A.L.?”

Obama and his fam

Well that’s just it, kids. Barack Obama doesn’t need a stylist because the man’s got original style. Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, High Priestess of Style, knows this. The article in MV is remarkable because it lets Obama speak for himself, through his writings, speeches and conversation. The Leibovitz photos shoot him doing the things he does in the clothes he wears (which, granted, are quite tasteful). And, most arrestingly, we learn that his most stylish asset is his command of language. One hears and reads very often that Obama has ‘boatloads of charisma’; that he speaks eloquently; that he writes well. But in the context of the language skills and rhetoric of, let’s say, all politicians today, that means nothing. The fact is that Obama writes and speaks beautifully.

Can there be any other politician who has as strong a policy regarding semi-colons and lists? From his elegant and looong post to Daily Kos, in which he makes the fascinating argument that liberals should be nicer to the Democrats who voted for Judge Roberts, even though he himself voted against him (and the way the list is embedded in a set of double dashes– it just gives you the shivers):

I shared enough of these concerns that I voted against Roberts on the floor this morning. But short of mounting an all-out filibuster — a quixotic fight I would not have supported; a fight I believe Democrats would have lost both in the Senate and in the court of public opinion; a fight that would have been difficult for Democratic senators defending seats in states like North Dakota and Nebraska that are essential for Democrats to hold if we hope to recapture the majority; and a fight that would have effectively signaled an unwillingness on the part of Democrats to confirm any Bush nominee, an unwillingness which I believe would have set a dangerous precedent for future administrations– blocking Roberts was not a realistic option.

And how many people quote the poetry of Borges to discuss their turn toward religion (‘a choice, not an epiphany‘)? How many people quote the poetry of Borges at all? And this quote is from a love poem:

“I offer you that kernel of myself that I have saved, somehow—the central heart that deals not in words, traffics not with dreams and is untouched by time, by joy, by adversities.

“I think Borges is talking to a mistress or lover” Obama said. “But that kernel that is untouched;that doesn’t traffic in the trivial or the mean or the petty;that sounds like God to me.”

(In the previous line of the poem, rather confusingly in this context, the narrator states,

I offer you the loyalty of a man who has never been loyal.

This last being, no doubt, a priceless thing to offer, but probably the sort of association one should avoid as a politician. But he didn’t quote that part, and he acknowledges it is not a poem about religion, but a love poem, and it probably doesn’t matter that it was allegedly written for his comely young apprentice, Adolfito Bioy-Casares, by an elderly Borges, in English, in honor of their ‘English Friendship’.)

And when have we heard a public figure intelligently discuss the role of religious imagery in the rhetoric of politics, instead of just pumping more and more hackneyed phrases and tired cliches into the atmosphere?

“If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice,” he argued. “Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King;the majority of great reformers in American history;were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public-policy debates is a practical absurdity.”

Obama is indeed a man of style, but that style stretches far beyond a make of clothing, an aspect of his physical appearance, or an over-abundance of charm. It’s not Project Runway style, it’s Chicago Manual of style. And we just love the way it all hangs together.

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