What's the Prob, Bob?

Unplugging from daily blogging is freeing yet — true of all freedoms? — unsettling. You climb up the big mountain range off past the edge of town, find a nook, and look down. There’s everyone, scurrying around in miniature. Turn your head 90 degrees, woop, now you’re gazing off at a vast vista, or the pillbugs and dust mites picking their way across the crannies of your cave. Turn your head back — there’s everyone again! A whole town, your town, only…you’re not in it. Is it really your town anymore? What are you, a rentier citizen? But surely relevance isn’t a lightswitch….

I mention this because it dovetails in a strange way with assessing Jindal’s non-speech reply to Obama’s non-SOTU speech.


A good number of folks who’ve been talking up Gov. Bobby Jindal’s presidential chances are now defending his anodyne performance last night by pointing out, correctly, that Jindal is smart, serious and talented, and that there’s no evidence that a panned SOTU (or budget speech) response will make or break a career. […] They’re just too artificial — a man or woman, standing in an empty, artificially lit room, trying to tie several knots at once. Fine. Jindal’s buzz shouldn’t really go down much among Beltway insiders. As I noted yesterday, he is not charistmatic [sic], and this format is not his best. Formal speech responses are quaint in an era of instantaneous communication.

Whoa, what’s that maxim of Politics 3.0 doing in there? Ambinder does it again later, only with Politics 1.0:

Politicians use charisma — call it authentic presence — to cover up their human quirks. Luckily for Jindal, other WH 2012 or 2016 contenders […] aren’t terribly charismatic either, aside from Ex-MA Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has a tenuous relationship to certain parts of the Republican base. The good news for Jindal is that expectations have been lowered a bit, and if you believe him to be serious about not running until at least 2016, not a thing has happened to change his prospects.

This all sounds right to me except for maxim one, and maxim two is true but in a way that needs unpacking.

Jindal’s response was near-instantaneous, and if we mean ‘unprepared’, well, I assure you that if Jindal went with unprepared remarks his beltway assessment would not have improved. But as it stands, the main opportunity that Jindal ‘missed’ was to ‘go to the head of the class’ in the way Obama did with his debut address, which of course was an entirely different format, etc., etc. As much of a dud as Jindal was, and as correctly as Ambinder points out that the ‘party response’ format is lame and flatfooted (though not because of the internet), it’s outrageous to expect Obamaness out of Jindal, and it’s troubling, though not surprising, to see that the GOP nervously desires Obamaness out of him.

There is only one Barack Obama, and imitating him will do great harm to American politics because it will lodge all the deeper our stupid conviction that ‘authentic presence’ of various kinds can be rubbed off, or sprayed on. Such a creepy covetousness of power-emanating totem-people it spawns. Obama’s charisma is contagious: what an intoxicating promise! But reminding ourselves that we can never truly separate a person from their ‘-ness’ should actually bring Obama back down to Earth, reminding us that Obama is only human. Alas, in the charisma game, we remain dangerously uneducated about what ‘authentic presence’ really means, paying great lip service to ‘authenticity’ while fawning over mere ‘presence’, stage presence. Authenticity is a fax of a fax, a ghost of a ghost. You can’t be merely authentic. You have to be an authentic something. “Yeah,” answers our cheap, corrupted vision of charisma. “Authentically present!”

Austin Powers: Hey! There you are!
Tourist: Hi… do I know you?
Austin Powers: No, but that’s where you are! You’re there!

‘Charismatic politicians’, as we understand them, use their ability to be ‘authentically present’ to pin you to a moment in which details and realities outside that moment are rendered irrelevant. (Here I am! No, you don’t know me. But this is where I am! I’m here!) Jay Gatsby has this talent. So do Sarah Palin and Bill Clinton. So does (apparently) Rupert Everett:

He has the ability to intoxicate effortlessly, gazing deep into your eyes and listening acutely, no matter the topic. Spending time with him is like encountering your sixth-grade crush all grown up — instantly intimate in a way that’s both entirely silly and completely satisfying. No matter that he’s had only one bona-fide Hollywood hit. He is a star, which means everyone else in the world, journalists included, are fans. That he stops thinking about you the moment you’re out of sight is a given.

He attributes this same magnetic star power to Madonna. In his autobiography, he writes, “but when she looked away, it was like sunbathing on a cold day and suddenly a cloud comes.”

Make that incompletely satisfying. Calling Bobby Jindal uncharismatic in this way is almost to pay him a compliment. We need fewer, not more, such people in politics. We like to give them things, you see, and when we snap out of it, later…ugh.

Jindal’s lack of stage presence may have made his moment in the sun clunky and offputting, but on what planet does anyone want a ‘party response’ spot to send a thrill up their leg? ‘Obamaness’ is a fatal charm and zahir for the GOP, an El Dorado for intellectual check-kiters. In town, Jindal looked all-too-human. Off on the mountaintop, this is a relief. But from afar, our gazes aren’t trained on our towns. They’re trained on the City of Gold, on Homer’s version of Chocolate City, on a hypnotic mirage. It’s easy, so intoxicated, to trudge on in defiance of one’s dwindling rations. But, yes — from up on the mountaintop? Even up here? Your bones are showing.