Sunday, May 04, 2008

Back to the future

At the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza considers the fate of Bill Clinton in the age of YouTube:
While Obama downplays wonkiness and Hillary presents her plans as tedious laundry lists, Bill makes connections and translates abstractions into folksy humor. To underscore the relationship between America’s budget deficit, paid for by loans from countries like China, and lax enforcement of the trade violations of those countries, he asked voters to imagine barging into the local bank president’s office and smacking him. “Say, ‘I can’t take it anymore!’ Bam!” he told the Lock Haven audience as he pantomimed a punch and then paused for comic effect. “Do you think you could get a loan tomorrow afternoon?” People laughed and shook their heads.

Clinton is angry that this side of him has been nearly absent from the coverage. “You don’t ever read about this stuff! This is never part of the political debate!” he said at one event. “But this is what matters.” Adjusting to the modern, gaffe-centric media environment has been wrenching. At most of his Pennsylvania stops, the national press was represented mainly by a pair of young TV-network “embeds,” whom Clinton regards not as reporters but as media jackals who record his every utterance yet broadcast only his outbursts, a phenomenon that has helped transform him into a YouTube curiosity and diminished him—perhaps permanently. “It’s like he’s been plucked out of time and thrown into the middle of this entirely new kind of campaign,” the adviser told me. Jay Carson, a senior Clinton campaign official and Bill’s former spokesman, said, “Because of the way he is covered, the only thing anyone ever sees is fifteen seconds that is deemed by the pundits to be off message.”
It was the notion of a man "plucked out of time" that snagged my attention. Famously, Nixon 'lost' an on-camera debate with Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy because of his sweating. Certain stars of the silent screen couldn't make the transition to the talkies because of their voices (squeaky, accented, etc.). Conversely, certain people take advantage of the "plucked out of time" effect by seeming to have been born before their time. This can be sinister, with middle-aged or elderly gurus manipulating the young, or admirable, with older figures receiving the vindication of history for minority or otherwise unpopular views. Timothy Leary vs. Arthur C. Clarke? In terms of psychology or morality rather than 'speaking to the future' as such, this phenomenon clearly cuts both ways...

Elsewhere in the same issue of the magazine, Cynthia Zarin quotes current Globe theatre director Dominic Dromgoole on former Globe leader Mark Rylance (who buried 'gifts' of tobacco, spirits and flowers under the pillars in the early stages of construction of the replica of Shakespeare's theatre):
Initially, I'd been part of the prejudice against the Globe. I thought, It's going to be Disneyland; it's going to be Heritage. But then I came to see 'Measure for Measure,' in 2004, and it blew me away. It was so intelligent. It was funny and alive and concrete. It had a physical life. It was full of grace and charity. What I thought was a theatre of the past became a theatre of the future.
(Good quotes in that article from my Columbia colleague Jim Shapiro, BTW!)

1 comment:

  1. I remember growing up reading about how people who watched the Nixon-Kennedy debate on TV thought Kennedy had won it, and those who listened to it on radio thought Nixon had won, and this was always presented as evidence of how TV cheapened American politics and reduced everything to image, image, image. It wasn't until fairly recently that I first heard somebody--I think it was Louis Menand--suggest that maybe, just maybe, what this disconnect revealed is that the kind of people who listened to the debate on radio because, as late as 1960, they still didn't own a TV set, were just naturally the kind of people who'd have voted for Nixon if he were running against Flash Gordon.