Alex Massie

Department of (Terrible) Framing

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Film critic and cultural historian Neil Gabler has an interesting column on the Presidential race in today's Los Angeles Times. He concludes:

It is axiomatic that the more powerful the theme a star embodies, the more powerful his or her stardom. Obama's theme is a potent one. Whether one buys into it or not, he promises to cross divides -- political, ideological, racial, geographic -- and to transcend the old politics of fear and hate that has commandeered recent elections. He believes that America can -- and should -- be the moral beacon for the world by returning to its core values. In analyzing his own appeal, Obama says he has become a symbol -- which, again, is exactly what all stars are. He is providing a really good, uplifting movie.

Critics, not least of all John McCain, have complained that this is merely windy rhetoric -- high-blown but ultimately empty. Eventually, they say, Obama will come back to Earth the way rock stars do when the concert ends. But this misses the point of what Obama has tapped into, as well as the point of movie stardom itself. Yes, politicians can declaim themes, and Obama is doing that. Yet Obama is not just declaiming his theme the way most politicians have. He has lived it, which is why it has been so effective.

Of course McCain is a hero in his own right, but his narrative is familiar -- it's a war movie after all -- and his feat is that of having survived, which in a Hollywood film is not the same thing as having led the rescue. He hardly embodies the new-style heroism that [Norman] Mailer saw in John Kennedy, which allowed the late president to extend the bounds of politics not only into stardom but into imagination as stars do. With Kennedy, anything seemed possible...

What this election may finally come down to is a choice between politics and movie stardom, between the safety of what we think we know and the expansiveness of what we dream, or, in more prosaic terms, between good old John Wayne and the less predictable but more exciting Will Smith.

I don't know if Gabler is an Obama supporter or not, but if he is I'd suggest that it's hard to think of a worse way of framing the election than this. I mean, really, who are you going to back in a fight between Will Smith and John Wayne?

In fact it's hard to think of a framing device more favourable to John McCain than this. Will Smith is many things; likable, personable, smooth, funny, good looking, witty and all the rest of it. But Presidential? The embodiment of hope? A leader? Really? John Wayne is, well John Wayne... The Duke might not offer much in the way of hope and you might not care much for his manner, but by god you know where you stand with him. Even when he's a cranky, irascible sonofabitch - in True Grit or Red River for instance - he can be counted on to do the right thing in the end.

Hell, Wayne was perhaps the most quintessentially American movie star of the last 60 years. And he almost always won. Really, if you wanted to hurt Obama you might choose to frame the race in this manner.

We get the hope thing by now. But Obama's victory in the Democratic primary was built on more than just hope. It was about judgement and the policy-based criticisms he made of both the Bush administration and his rivals. He's still more than well-placed to win in Novemember, but I can't help feeling that the more his campaign is grounded in detail and the less concerned it is with the high-faultin' rhetorc of being the change we've been waiting for, the better he will do. At the very least there needs to be a proper balance between passing the ball downfield (hope!) and running it up the gut (boring but efficient policy!)...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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