Glad-Handing

“The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.”

Willy Loman – the salesman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – offers that advice to his son. Sure, the neighbor’s son is a hot-shit lawyer, who just argued a case in front of the Supreme Court. That’s fine, and he may be liked, but is he well-liked? And that’s the point Loman is making. You see, being well-liked is what really matters – that’s where the big money is, and the power, and, most of all, the respect. Everyone knows that. And Miller’s 1949 play explores what an empty delusion that is – and how it destroys a man, and a family, and by implication a nation. Yes, the play is a bitter critique of the American Dream, as bourgeois consumer-capitalism is a complex system that prospers and grows by leaps and bounds if you have what is in essence a nation of salesmen, where everyone is selling everyone else stuff no one really needs. That is the consumer economy. But then how do you sell all that useless crap? Well, you use your winning personality. People like you, they come to trust you, and they hand over their cash – and you hand them the keys to that cherry used Studebaker, or that third life insurance policy. And the ones who succeed in such a system are those who are well-liked, extremely well-liked. That’s the trick to clouding the judgment of others, and closing the sale.

But it’s an empty trick. People do know better, and sometimes you find you cannot sell a smile – or sell what you point out everyone else is buying because it’s so cool, or so sexy. Sometimes there has to be something actually there. The kid next door grew up studying hard and he eventually did know the law inside and out. He didn’t get by on charm. And Willy Loman just doesn’t get it. Why can you not get by on charm? He’s proud that people really like him. It’s just not fair.

But of course people really didn’t like Willy Loman all that much. There just wasn’t that much there. He was just one more moving part, one of many millions, in an interlocking system of people trading on carefully-manufactured wonderful-but-rather-imaginary personalities, and getting rich, or not. That’s America – as Arthur Miller saw it – tragically empty. He thought it was all stupid and beyond sad. And then a few years later he married Marilyn Monroe. There’s no small irony there. She was, as she herself sometimes seemed to know, the ultimate carefully-manufactured wonderful-but-rather-imaginary personality – with perhaps someone real hidden under it all, maybe. The marriage didn’t last. And the apartment where the two of them were married in a private ceremony – on Sutton Place on the east side of Manhattan – was offered for sale recently. And someone bought it. The ghosts in those rooms must be amazing, and the still air heavy with broken dreams – if you believe in that sort of thing.

But in spite of that odd marriage, Miller was onto something in that 1949 play. We still trade in carefully-manufactured wonderful-but-rather-imaginary personalities. That’s what American politics are all about – those carefully-manufactured wonderful-but-rather-imaginary personalities. There was George Bush, the cowboy, born in New England to old money and power, with his sort-of ranch, purchased the year before he was elected with his carefully-manufactured authenticity. And John McCain, the not that bright reckless pilot who got shot down and spent many years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, with his carefully-manufactured righteous and angry war-hero sales pitch. And this year’s crop of Republican hopefuls have their own carefully-manufactured personae – those wonderful-but-rather-imaginary personalities. Newt Gingrich is the noted historian and always the smartest man in the room of course. Ron Paul is the eccentric old uncle who says what he thinks and doesn’t give a damn what you or anyone else thinks – and sometimes says amazingly fine and brave things, and often says crazy stuff. Most families have one of those irascible but loveable old uncles. And Mitt Romney will be whatever you want him to be. He’s easy. And he’s liked. But is he well-liked?

Well, he may be liked well enough:

Americans perceive Jon Huntsman, Mitt Romney, and Ron Paul as closest to themselves ideologically, and Michele Bachmann and Barack Obama as furthest away.

A USA Today/Gallup poll asked Americans to rate their own ideology – and the ideology of the eight major presidential candidates – on a 5-point scale with 1 being very liberal and 5 being very conservative. Americans’ mean score on this scale is 3.3, meaning the average American is slightly to the right of center ideologically. Huntsman’s score matches that at 3.3, but that mean rating excludes the 45% of Americans who did not have an opinion of Huntsman. Of the better known candidates, Romney’s and Paul’s 3.5 scores are closest to the average American’s ideology.

Ah, people like you, they come to trust you, and they vote for you. And that means that Obama is in trouble:

Obama’s mean ideology rating ends up furthest away from Americans’ own mean score because Republicans place him far to the left, with an average of 1.7, compared with 2.5 among independents and 2.8 among Democrats. In fact, Obama is the only candidate whose ideology is perceived very differently by party groups; Republicans, Democrats, and independents generally perceive each of the Republican candidates’ views similarly.

The Republican numbers skew that data oddly, but then everyone else also thinks Obama’s a left-wing madman to some degree. By this measure he is not well-liked. And Geoffrey R. Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, has a simple explanation for that:

Barack Obama is a Socialist who consorts with domestic terrorists. He is a Muslim who was born in Kenya and is therefore not constitutionally eligible to be president. He wants to import homosexuals, destroy the Second Amendment, and encourage abortions. According to Sean Hannity, he has thrown Israel under a “bus full of suicide bombers.” According to Glenn Beck, he has “a deep-seated hatred for white people.” According to Rush Limbaugh, he has “nothing but contempt for this country. And on and on and on.”

If this isn’t about policy or actions or substance, or results, then it’s about salesmanship. The folks on the right agree with Willy Loman – all of life is about selling stuff, almost always useless crap, and you do that by being well-liked. And if your salesmen are looking silly – like, say, Rick “Oops” Perry – then the salesman with the competing product line had damned well better look worse. Miller would probably see this as the triumph of emptiness, but Stone ends his item with this:

Although Democrats and Independents come to fairly similar conclusions in their evaluation of the President’s political ideology, the Republicans are simply off-the-charts. If we assume, as seems sensible, that Independents have a reasonably neutral understanding of each candidate’s ideology, then the data suggest that Republicans have a wildly distorted perception of the president’s views.

This, I fear, may be one very troubling consequence of the aggressive and often nasty assault on truth and reason in our contemporary political discourse.

The aggressive and often nasty assault on truth and reason has been going on a long time, professor. Politics has always been about selling people stuff they don’t really understand and probably don’t need. And Obama is not comfortable being the glad-handing salesman. He’s the kid next door who became the brilliant lawyer – liked, but not well-liked.

And he just doesn’t play the game, or so says Helene Cooper in the New York Times with White House Memo: Obama Gains Reputation as Distant in Washington:

Mr. Obama, in general, does not go out of his way to play the glad-handing, ego-stroking presidential role. While he does sometimes offer a ride on Air Force One to a senator or member of Congress, more often than not, he keeps Congress and official Washington at arm’s length, spending his down time with a small – and shrinking – inner circle of aides and old friends.

He typically golfs with a trio of mid- to low-level staff members little known outside the West Wing. He does not spend much time at Camp David, the retreat other presidents have used to woo Washington. His social life runs toward evenings playing Taboo with old friends and their families, Wii video games with his wife and daughters or basketball with Robert Wolf, a banker and the rare new best friend Mr. Obama has acquired since entering politics. He vacations with friends from Chicago on Martha’s Vineyard in August and in Hawaii at Christmas …

“This is not a Lincoln bedroom guy,” said James Carville, the Democratic strategist, referring to the guest bedroom at the White House where President Bill Clinton put up supporters and donors. “In fact, he’s the anti-Lincoln bedroom guy. He doesn’t seem to relish, or even like, having politicians around.”

Who could blame him, and David Dayen adds this:

Maybe the news week is so slow that this makes it onto the front page of a newspaper by accident. But I can’t think of something the public is likely to care less about. Can’t there be a “Village Times” where gossip like this can get lapped up by the inside-the-Beltway cocktail-party circuit, so the rest of us don’t have to wade through it? Maybe they can have their own closed-circuit TV network too. They could run Hardball for 24 hours a day, and have Sally Quinn on to discuss these earth-shaking events.

The only on-the-record quotes from a lawmaker in this piece, by the way, come from Dennis Cardoza, who recently blasted the President as an arrogant college professor in the pages of The Hill. So no, I’m not too surprised that they don’t socialize.

The President of the United States has a number of responsibilities. In this case, he has a number of policies worthy of praise and worthy of criticism in my view. You don’t have to go searching for the “does he play too much Wii with his wife and daughters” level of critique for any possible reason. The cupboard should never get that bare.

The Cardoza item is here – arguing that this Obama guy is too thoughtful, and there’s no place for that in politics, or some such thing. You can almost hear Willy Loman.

And here’s Ed Kilgore:

David Dayen is right: this is the sort of story you mainly see in a very slow news week. But it’s still annoying as hell. Yes, it’s the obligatory report from Washington Insiders that the President just doesn’t fit in because he doesn’t get around and schmooze the movers and shakers who like to call the Imperial City “this town.” Though the author, Helene Cooper, doesn’t come right out and say his “aloofness” is the source of his political problems, that’s certainly the implication. And so add that data point to the absurd claim that Obama just hasn’t gone far enough to kiss ass – particularly Republican ass – in order to break down Washington’s “gridlock.”

And Kilgore was sure Cooper would bring up Jimmy Carter, and she did:

To many in Washington – including those, of course, who crave presidential face time – Mr. Obama’s seeming aloofness is risky. He is the nation’s politician in chief, and the presidency has always been first and foremost about politics.

“It’s about building relationships,” said Gerald Rafshoon, a television producer who was President Jimmy Carter’s communications director. “Some people are saying he’s a recluse. You don’t want that reputation. He needs to show that he likes people.” Mr. Rafshoon’s old boss, an outsider to Washington when he became president, recently wrote in his book “White House Diary” that he did not socialize enough when he was the chief executive.

Kilgore:

Ah, poor Jimmy; even his own staff was apparently muttering behind his back that he didn’t accommodate himself sufficiently to the Georgetown set. I devoutly hope this crap isn’t in Obama’s daily reading file, and if it is, that he just laughs.

But Cooper offers this:

On Capitol Hill, Republicans say they rarely hear from the president, and members of his own party complain that Mr. Obama and his top aides are handicapping themselves by not reaching out enough. “When you have relationships with individual members, you can call them up and ask a favor, and a lot of times, if it’s not objectionable, you can get things done,” said Representative Dennis A. Cardoza, Democrat of California….

White House officials, however, counter that Mr. Obama’s detachment from Congress could end up benefiting him politically. After all, many Americans regard this Congress as dysfunctional, with abysmal approval ratings.

And Ann Althouse works the logic:

So… if you’re dysfunctional with the dysfunctional, you’re… functional!

Well, maybe, and Cooper had this:

Despite the narrative in Washington of Mr. Obama as a loner, his friends and aides say he likes people just fine….

Althouse:

That’s not a contradiction. You could like people just fine and want nothing to do with the particular people who happen to be in Congress. Don’t you identify with that?

Yes. And Charles Pierce has something to say about that:

Nobody of whom I’m aware ever thought of President Obama as Mr. Happy Fun Guy. The last guy, you may recall, was bouncy and gregarious and handed out alpha-male frat-boy nicknames, and then he got in there and screwed up the country. Moreover, if there are five people of value who still care what James Carville – let alone Gerald Rafshoon – thinks about anything, I don’t know them. But perhaps the singular failure of this particular “White House Memo” is its argument that things would be better all around if the president had “reached out” to the Congress. Good god, there are even some Democrats in there saying it, which is a very good indication of the problems the president has, none of which will be solved by some discreet hand-holding over the canapés at Ben and Sally’s.

And there’s Digby:

There is a lot to criticize president Obama for, but failing to properly kiss the Village Tabbies’ rings is not one of them. Indeed, if he’s aloof toward these people, all the better.

But that’s the issue here. No-Drama Obama was supposed to be a clean break from the bouncy and gregarious alpha-male frat-boy who never quite seemed to know what was going on and liked fart jokes – we chose someone professorial, perhaps on purpose. And Obama is not going to suddenly turn into Bush – he will spend some quiet evenings with his family. There’s no carefully-manufactured wonderful-but-rather-imaginary personality here. And there’s also no need for nasty but effective Dick Cheney in the background, actually running things – because you really cannot get by on charm, or whatever that was that Bush had. Doesn’t anyone know that Arthur Miller play? It used to be that everyone read that in high school. But there is that Paul Simon song – “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school it’s a wonder I can think at all…”

Well, that song is about self-delusion too, like the Miller play. But we are a nation of salesmen (and saleswomen) – people trading on carefully-manufactured wonderful-but-rather-imaginary personalities, and getting rich or powerful or both, or not. That’s America – perhaps tragically empty. And perhaps that’s why so many sort of feel Obama is not really an American. And the rest of us remember Willy Loman, and are relieved.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Glad-Handing

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    Your posts are all excellent, even if I don’t comment very often. I rarely see a ‘clunker’, and if I examine those, carefully, I am resisting some idea or other that is presented. This post is particularly ‘spot on’ about we Americans, whether left or right makes no difference. We seem to want what we want when and how we want it. We need “A Serious Man” (to borrow the Coen Brothers film title) to save us from ourselves. Hopefully, enough of us realize that, and will so act in November, 2012 – and not only when we vote for President of the United States. The ball is truly in ‘we, the people’s’ court, not Obama or anyone else’s. I may be a foolish optimist, but I believe that beyond the incessant polls and chatter about Iowa and whatever, there is a quiet undercurrent building – people who do not like what we have become: a “me” society. Thank you for your work. Happy New Year.

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