What this country needs, in addition to the elusive nickel cigar, is a president with less presence and more absence. Not just from Barack Obama, but from whoever follows him as well. Celebrities, even presidents, can be too much among us. They, like us, suffer for it.
The jet airplane, the ubiquitous television camera and now the Internet have conspired to illustrate as nothing ever has that familiarity breeds contempt, that it’s absence that makes the heart grow fonder. Women once knew that by female instinct, until they aspired to be men, minus the body odor and whiskers. (Some of them are working on that.) The studio moguls in Hollywood understood that, too, when Hollywood was still Hollywood, populated by movie stars. Now Hollywood, like Washington, is populated only by actors, who compete to see who can look and smell most in need of a bath. Jane Russell, one of the last of the authentic movie stars, once told me how she couldn’t slip out of her house for a quick trip to the supermarket for a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread without her make-up, manicure, heels and hair perfectly in place. It was in her contract. (Meryl Streep, our only surviving movie queen, projects the old star power precisely because she remembers the formula.)
You might think that a president, being the most powerful man in the world, able to start wars on a whim, wouldn’t be so eager to get noticed. Indeed, presidents once carefully rationed their availability, even for photo-ops. FDR, Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower would never be available for a photo-op with Miss Drumsticks of the Ozarks, even for a cause so grand as commemorating poultry plentitude. Barack Obama has not yet descended to the chicken house, but that may be in the works. He never misses an opportunity to take his noisy community activism on the road.
The president, who early on came to regard himself as the prince with the voice that could make the earth move, has never been able to resist the sound of his voice. He likes question-and-answer sessions with carefully screened constituents because it gives him jumping-off places for stump oratory. When a woman named Doris stood up at a rally at a battery factory in North Carolina to ask whether “it was a wise decision to add more taxes to us with the health care package,” he had a few words for her. Nearly three thousand of them.
Mr. Obama spent the next 17 minutes and 12 seconds — conscientious reporters are paid to keep track of such statistics — wandering through a maze of wonkery that would put an entire Washington think tank to sleep. He talked about Medicare waste, foreign aid, Warren Buffett, earmarks, and offered two lists of “essential three points” for everyone to keep in mind. Alas, by this time nearly everybody, including the president, was fast asleep. He never answered Doris’ question, but he did apologize for taking so long about it.
This is not necessarily this president’s fault. Brevity is no longer a virtue in public discourse. When someone talks a lot, nobody remembers much of what he says. Calvin Coolidge once sat next at dinner to a Washington society dowager who told the president, famous for hoarding words, that she had made a bet that she could get him to say more than two words. Replied Silent Cal: “You lose.”
This presidential pursuit of celebrity, tempting as it may be for any politician, can have serious consequences. Mr. Obama, like George W. Bush before him, is fond of issuing extravagant warnings to the nation’s enemies that neither he nor they believe for a minute. Such warnings sound good in his ear, no doubt, but nowhere else.
He and his secretary of state have called Iran’s nuclear-weapons program “unacceptable” so often that it has become a mantra. The president set several final, absolute, positive deadlines for Iran to negotiate a comprehensive, verifiable, workable agreement satisfactory to the several nations of the West — or else. The president has waived the deadlines, one by one. He finally made the waiver permanent and invited the evildoers to tea, declaring that “our offer of comprehensive diplomatic contacts and dialogue stands.” For this Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had a ready insult: “They say they have extended a hand to Iran, but [we] declined to welcome that.”
This would have persuaded presidents past to accept reality and deal with it, but that’s no longer the fashion. Mr. Obama merely sends word to the teleprompter that more show-and-tell is in the works.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.