Saturday, April 07, 2012


“The offered me the office, offered me the shop
They said I'd better take anything they'd got
Do you wanna make tea at the BBC?
Do you wanna be, do you really wanna be a cop?

Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock
Career opportunities, the ones that never knock”

Joe Strummer and Mick Jones penned those words for the Clash, back in the year I graduated from high school, 1977. They were probably sincere, for they appeared on the Clash’s first album, and thus were written before the band hit the big time. For Joe, Mick and the boys, however, those career opportunities knocked quite loudly two years later when they released London Calling. Today, just about anyone who knows popular music can tell you that the Clash were the greatest punk-rock band of all time.

The Clash had both style and substance. They looked the part of authentic punks – rebellious Cockneys, lifting their middle finger to all the corporate drones and beautiful people. They had, in short, the same vibe as the Sex Pistols. But with the Clash, you also got intelligent lyrics and catchy tunes. Combine that with the “attitude,” and the result is timeless. So yes, the band had talent, but let us not forget that talent alone will only get you so far. To be known by just about everyone as the “greatest … of all time” in any portion of popular culture, you need a whole heaping helping of luck. You need to be one of those select few who are favored of the gods.

Mozart was favored of the gods. He proved that at the tenderest of ages. Pure talent, right? But imagine that same kid with the same talent living, not in the 18th century, but in the 8th century. Would he be known today as perhaps the greatest musical genius of all time? Would we have even heard of him? Mozart’s luck wasn’t only to be born with such prodigious talent, but to live in a time and place (Austria) where classical music was king. In the movie Amadeus, the composer Salieri clearly recognizes his own luck at being the court composer in Vienna at this time in history. But tragically, the character of Salieri also recognizes that compared to Mozart, his skills were meager and his work ultimately forgettable. Salieri had met his match. And for this, he would view himself as a “mediocrity” worthy of mockery. Yet what Salieri really couldn’t bear was knowing that it was Mozart, and not he, who was favored of the gods.

That expression goes back as far as Plutarch, and a time and place when people believed that the deities were plural, whimsical, and all-too-human in their behavior. By contrast, the peoples of Abraham, who collectively came to dominate the Western world, think of the divine differently – as being singular, rational, and transcendently just in his decisions. Of course, that only makes it sting worse when you realize that you have been passed up for the divine largesse in favor of some other. In the case of Salieri (at least the character in the movie, if not the real composer), he was passed up in favor of a silly, foul-mouthed, irreverent twit. What kind of God would reward such a person with the ability to create such heavenly music practically from the crib? How can such a God be worthy of our worship? For Salieri, the Lord became worthy of contempt.

Increasingly, I think, that’s an attitude that folks will begin to experience in the Bible Belt of 21st century America. Because they are in the process of witnessing a politician who is truly “favored of the gods,” and they are not liking what they see any more than did Salieri.

Everyone, even the Red State ditto-heads, would have to tip their hat to the talent Barack Obama displayed when he was running for office in 2008. Beating the heavily favored Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination required one inspired speech after another, and that’s precisely what Obama delivered. He had the ability to stir people who had been previously disaffected by politics – and stir them, for the most part, with platitudes. "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." "Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire; what led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation; what led young women and young men to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through Selma and Montgomery for freedom’s cause. Hope is what led me here today–with a father from Kenya, a mother from Kansas; and a story that could only happen in the United States of America. Hope is the bedrock of this nation; the belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us; by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is; who have courage to remake the world as it should be."

Those were stirring words, especially when delivered by a handsome, youthful, intelligent U.S. Senator who was poised to make history as the first African-American President from a country that once wrote into law that African-Americans shall be treated as three-fifths of a person (part human, part ape, in the view of the white majority). That was the primary stain on our history. In Barack Obama, we had a walking, talking, smiling disinfectant. Even in the Bible Belt, people comprehended the appeal. They didn’t like it, they didn’t trust it, but they understood it. They knew that as a political candidate, he was formidable as hell.

Now, four years later, Barack Obama is running again. He has the same good looks, the same intelligence, the same winning smile. And while he isn’t nearly as youthful – four years in the White House aged even that imp, George W. Bush – Obama remains completely comfortable in his own skin. That he is indeed a “natural” was on display this past week during halftime of the NCAA Championship college basketball game, when Obama was interviewed by CBS Sports Analyst Clark Kellogg. Our President clearly loves and understands the game of basketball, and it was especially nice to see him talking about his own daughters, who have taken up the sport themselves. Watching Obama give an interview as if he were relaxing with friends in our own living room, I couldn’t help but be reminded of those two other American political geniuses of the last 40 years, Reagan and Clinton. They too were favored of the gods (though in Clinton’s case, the gods showed their raunchy sense of humor).

In the Bible Belt, Obama’s halftime interview must have been watched with horror. Here you have this guy, racking up votes just by smiling and talking hoops, when in fact, he’s a socialist, a foreigner, a Muslim … . Well, OK, I don’t really believe that this is the majority view. But I do think the clear majority of white people in the south and the lower Midwest see Obama as a phony, an inept leader, a garden-variety tax-and-spend liberal, and a serious drag on our nation’s prosperity and freedom. In other words, they think he is a failed President, just as Salieri thought Mozart failed as a member of the moral community. But Salieri also recognized Mozart as the quintessential composer, and I suspect that in the Bible Belt, at least the brighter right-wingers see Obama as a born political candidate. He’s almost impossible to beat – particularly given whom the gods provide as his challengers.

In 2008, Barack went up against Grandpa John McCain, Prom Queen Sara Palin, and the Party that gave us a Wall Street meltdown. Today, Barack is about to go up against a patrician who is the life of the party – but only if the party is in your town’s most exclusive country club.

Nobody would deny that Mitt Romney is one hell of a punch line. In fact, Romney’s biggest problem is that he’s the butt of way too many jokes. We can make fun of how little he gives a damn about the working class. Or how he has been on both sides of every issue. Or how he comes across as agoraphobic – reacting to being around people the same way I react when I’m looking down from a high cliff.

We could make fun of how Mitt seems to want to pretend that he’s a northerner one week, a southerner the next week, and a Mexican the week after that. Or we could joke not only about what Mitt is pretending to be, but what he is pretending NOT to be. Consider, for example, that just two days ago in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Romney gave a speech saying that Obama may have spent “too much time at Harvard.” To be sure, Obama did spend three years there getting a law degree. But Romney spent four years there, earning degrees in law and business, donated tens of thousands of dollars to the University, has three sons who are Harvard Men, and has all sorts of advisors with Harvard ties. Hey Mitt, do you really need to make fun of Obama for his Harvard connection? Next thing you know, Mitt will be making fun of Obama for being rich, or for associating with Mormons.

The gods convey their favors in all sorts of ways. Sometimes, this takes the form of inspiring people to create a great work of art or miraculous inventions. Sometimes, this takes the form of pushing someone into a position where they are “first” at achieving an accomplishment. And clearly, in the case of Obama – even more than Clinton and Reagan – the latter applies.

But perhaps when it comes to politics, you can’t truly be “favored of the gods” unless your legacy includes being compared to the ideal opponent – ideally fallible, that is. Reagan had Walter “Eat Your Peas” Mondale. Clinton had Robert “I’d Rather Be Pitching for Viagra” Dole. And Obama has Mitt “Everyone is Jealous of Me Even Though I’m a Geek” Romney.

Obama should have no trouble beating this guy. Hell, I’m beginning to think I could beat him – and I’m an only child who’s only a little more comfortable being around people than he is.

Hey Mitt, pick me as your running mate. Not only will we avoid kissing babies – we’ll tell their mothers that we don’t even especially like babies! OK. I’ll tell them that. You’ll just think it.

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