Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Murray Edelman and President Obama

A colleague introduced me to Murray Edelman's book, Constructing the Political Spectacle, a while back. I wish I'd read it when it came out, in 1988, U. of Chicago Press. It is superbly written, well argued, terse, and just plain smart. As the title suggests, Edelman applies social-constructivist theory to the political spectacle, the highly complex social performance we call politics or government.

Here's one paragraph:

"Whatever its current connotation, talk about a leader is an ideological text. Like all terms that appear often in discussions of politics, 'leadership' introduces diverse language games that vary with the social context. References to leaders of one's own country, interest groups, friendly or hostile foreign countries, bureaucratic organizations, riots, or revolutions initiate disparate chains of associations that vary with the current situations of observers and are often multifaceted and contradictory. In each case the leader personifies a range of fears of hopes. As a sign, 'leadership' combines wide ambiguity and strong affect" (p. 37)

I thought of President Obama's first formal, official press conference when I re-read this paragraph. What did Obama do to that piece of the spectacle, "the presidential White House press conference"? Well, as Edelman suggests, that depends on whom you talk to. ("Wide ambiguity and strong affect"). I'm guessing that among the first responses from most of those who voted for Obama and some who didn't was one of curiosity ("how will he 'do'?"), and/or one of relief or celebration ("our guy won"; "he's more articulate than Bush"); and/or one of advocacy, inwardly cheering on the President.

My first response to the press conference was that it seemed staged pretty much like the old ones. The staging and lighting look the same as they did for Bush II and Clinton. The press sits well below the president, who stands in front of "the inner sanctum," as it were, of the White House. The effect is that the press is "let in," but not too far, and in an inferior (physically) position.

My second response was that Obama seemed so professorial. He answered only 13 questions in about an hour, and he often spoke in paragraphs, the way Clinton did, but mostly without Clinton's wide-ranging diction, which was sometimes quite folksy (at calculated moments), sometimes not. Obama didn't sound all that different from people I've learned from and worked with for a long time. --A bit long-winded, truth to tell--and it's an occupational hazard of professors to which almost none are immune. After all, in a basic sense, we're paid to profess, just as a plumber is paid to fix pipes.

In the front row, next to Helen Thomas, sat talk-show guy Ed Schultz, a former Division II football player who led the nation in passing yardage one year. Schultz occupies an upper-Midwest, centrist, good-old-boy, union-friendly niche on Air America, although his show is actually distributed by the Jones Network, if memory serves. But he still has "the jock" about him, and I caught him looking down an awful lot, as if he were thinking, "Wow, when is this answer going to be over?"

My third response was that I felt Obama did what all presidents do in such situations: not answer direct questions, pivot, and then launch into answers that are mostly general, predictable, safe, and only specific when specific unilaterally useful. One difference from Bush II, perhaps, is that the rhetoric is still essentially argumentative (as in making arguments, not bickering), while Bush II just seemed to toss out talking-points; he rarely constructed answers, as it were. Bush provided mostly morsels. Obama seems to build answers with well considered parts.

Obama is certainly different from Bush II, Clinton, and others, but this small part of the spectacle has hardly changed at all. Whereas Bush used blunt talking points and a kind of twitchy nervousness to avoid answering questions, Obama essentially filibustered as a way of controlling the situation. When Helen Thomas asked him whether he knew of any Middle East countries that possessed nuclear weapons, he, like presidents before him, didn't get within a hundred miles of answering the question, even though Israel's possession of nuclear weapons is common knowledge. She was playing by press rules; he was playing by old presidential rules. One simply doesn't answer that question. When she pressed him, he moved on to another questioner, just as presidents have done before him.

But as Edelman might have noted, others "constructed" this part of the spectacle each in their own ways, although of course there are large patterns of response. I've enjoyed hearing how others responded to the press conference, just sort of to observe the construction, to to speak. Like poems, political spectacles are built, in a way, but their scale is so much larger, and there's obviously more at stake, at least in worldly terms.
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