My mother always used to tell me stories about how incredibly charming her father was. She couldn’t summon up any specific examples of that charm, however. Instead, the factual stories she told me were replete with instances of his compulsive womanizing, his spendthrift habits, his thoughtlessness, and the way in which he used her as his hired help when her mother, fed up with his behavior, left the family. The charm, which my mother remembered fondly, was ephemeral; the selfish behavior was lasting.
Whenever she’d start lauding her father, I, with all the self-righteousness of a teenager, would start quoting Shakespeare back at her: “”The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” I was certainly obnoxious, and it was unkind of me to sully the memory of a man she clearly loved despite his myriad faults, but I think I had a point. Charm is an intangible quality and vanishes with the person. Acts live on.
I keep thinking of that every time I read an article or hear a video reporter opining about Obama’s charm. I’m not inclined to like the man, so I seem to be immune to the tone of voice, the quirk of the smile, the glint of the eye, or whatever else it is that’s signaling to those enamored of him that this is a charming man. Absent these subtle, almost subconscious cues, all I’m left with are his words and his actions — and those aren’t charming at all.
Instead, his recorded conduct, the part that doesn’t resonate with someone’s loving emotions, is often condescending, arrogant and downright crude. I first noticed — and commented — about the fact when Hillary, in response to a remark about her “likability” problems on the campaign trail, made a rather charmingly self-deprecating remark about her likability. Obama responded to that remark with the verbal equivalent of a slap on the face. With a smirk, he glanced down at her and smugly remarked, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” There was Obama, the all-high arbiter of what constitutes minimum standards for likability. With his condescension on full display, it was a strikingly unkind, ungracious remark. Here, see for yourself:
This could have been a one-off, a little personal interlude on a long, hard-fought campaign trail, but evidence is piling up that it wasn’t. Instead, we’re seeing signs that, when Obama’s not engaged in a “charm offensive,” he tends to display an offensive “charm.” Need more examples? How about his simultaneous insult to Rush Limbaugh, a man adored, not by a small minority, but by millions of Americans, and his threat to Republicans to get with the Obama program — or else: “”You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.” A mere eleven words, and he manages to pack into it a world of disdain.
Then, on the very same day, he did a little raw power flexing, something that would had the media screaming to the rafters had George Bush uttered the same words:
In an exchange with Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) about the proposal, the president shot back: “I won,” according to aides briefed on the meeting.
“I will trump you on that.”
The same article from which I quoted hastens to add that Obama wasn’t gloating, he was merely being pragmatic. But it was a gloat. There were a thousand different ways to make the same point, and Obama went for the most brutish and self-promoting. “I will trump you” is a power statement. It is not conciliatory, it is not charming. It is what the victor says as he stands over his opponent’s body.
When my mother was growing up, she had the luxury of a few short years of tremendous wealth — which, European-fashion, included true, apron-wearing servants. In this household, one of the rules her parents repeatedly drummed into her was never to yell at those servants. Why not? Because the servants, as subordinates, can’t answer back. This, by the way, is the same principle that makes me loath judges who are abusive to the attorneys appearing before them. Since all the power in the courtroom resides with the judge, including the power to imprison an attorney for contempt, such raw displays of brute force are unseemly, vulgar and bullying — yet that’s what precisely what Obama did in his little interaction with Rep. Cantor.
It’s true that Cantor isn’t Obama’s employee, but Obama is the president, which is the highest job in the land. Our system demands that we respect him as the holder of that office, leaving anyone in conversation with him in the one-down status of a subordinate.
I suspect we’re going to see more and more of these high-and-mighty statements emanating from Obama. And the media, because it is entangled with his elusive charm, will happily report those same statements, believing unreservedly that everyone will agree that they show Obama’s wit and wisdom. I suspect, though, that many of those Americans who haven’t drunk too deeply of the Kool-Aid will begin to look at the Obama style and see, not a charming man of words, but an arrogant bully who uses his words to push around those he deems less worthy or powerful than himself.