There's a relatively recent political metaphor that is about to become a reality, and become etched in the history books much like the ring left on a wooden table by a sweating cold glass. President Obama is about to become the ultimate president "you could sit down and have a beer with." What this means for the future of our great nation has yet to be determined, but it's worth a look as to how we got to this point.
By which, I mean a look into the concept of having a beer with the president, and not delving into the facts of the case. The Massachusetts police officer and Harvard professor who are about to travel to the White House for the privilege of tossing down a frosty-cold one with the president each have their own version of the incident (which provoked the president to say what he did at his press conference), and without all the facts, it is simply sheer speculation to paint what happened with any kind of broad brush. My suspicion is that race may have had less to do with the professor getting a ticket, and that it was more likely a case of what those in the legal business call an "attitude arrest" -- in other words, showing "attitude" to a police officer sometimes gets you arrested. This -- right or wrong -- is a fact of life in America (and, I strongly suspect, just about everywhere else), but those who have never had interactions with the police may not be aware of it. But even having said that is saying too much, because it is sheer speculation on my part since (as I said) I don't have all the facts. So in the case of the professor and the policeman, I simply cannot say who was in the right, and who was "acting stupidly" (as the president put it), so I choose not to interject myself into that particular debate.
But both men have apparently agreed to sit down with President Obama, quaff a sudsy brew, and talk it out. On one level, this is kind of silly, because it is so far outside of what the duties of the president are supposed to be that it could even be seen as cheapening the office itself. But on the other hand, Obama inserted himself rather forcefully into the debate (when he really should have stopped, right after he said Gates was a friend of his and that he didn't have all the facts). Which means it's now kind of Obama's problem to deal with, at least seen politically. And then there's all the "teaching moment" pop psychology over "racial relations in America," which the press (I can guarantee) will be all over like boll weevils on cotton. And then there's the entire politics of "sitting down and having a beer" itself, which is what I really wanted to talk about here.
A president is (at least sometimes) supposed to be "a man of the people." As a linguistic side note, if we ever do get Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin or some other woman in the White House, that line is going to have to be edited. "A person of the people" or "a man or woman of the people" just doesn't have the same ring, but maybe we can alternate "a man of the people" and "a woman of the people," depending on who is in the White House at the time.
This man-of-the-people idea has actually been around a while. During the presidential campaign last year, I read a fascinating article about one aspect of this myth, that many presidents have used to show their common birth -- the "log cabin." Now, we all know that Honest Abe Lincoln was "born in a log cabin," but the use of this as political metaphor can be traced back further, to the original "man of the people" in the Oval Office: Andrew Jackson. For over a hundred years politicians strove mightily to prove their commonplace birth by claiming, if not a log cabin, than at least a very humble abode as their beginnings in life.
Of course, as modern life encroached, log cabin births became more rare, and it's hard to imagine anyone born in a log cabin becoming president today, merely because log cabins aren't as handy as they used to be. So the whole "man of the people" thing needed an update. After floundering around for a bit (such as Richard Nixon proclaiming his wife had an honest woman-of-the-people "Republican cloth coat," for instance), a new metaphor was born -- a man "you could have a beer with." And most definitely not "with whom you could have a beer," since we're talking about Average-Joe-ville here, where dangling prepositions are simply not a problem. As Winston Churchill was reported to have commented: "this is the sort of thing up with which we shall not put." Ahem.
But I digress. We're talking about American politicians here. And for the last few decades, the hallmark of man-of-the-people-ness among our politicians has been the beer. Previous to this time, history records plenty of interactions between politicians and alcohol, and not a few presidents who were, in essence, drunks. And not just presidents, either. Abraham Lincoln famously responded to slander about General Ulysses S. Grant's profligate drinking by asking what brand of whiskey the good general preferred, and stating that they should lay in a supply of it and send it on to him -- because he was doing such a bang-up job in the Civil War, unlike the other feckless Union generals he had to put up with. More recently, Lyndon Johnson used to terrify visitors to his ranch by knocking back Scotch from a paper cup while driving them around his ranch at high speeds.
But somewhere around the time of Reagan, the idea of an average citizen sitting down and having a beer with the president became desirable (one assumes, in this image, that you are not recklessly hurtling around the Texas countryside with him behind the wheel, of course). George H.W. Bush had problems in this regard, because no matter how his handlers tried to morph his upbringing and demeanor, they could not quite make him believable as a fellow beer-drinker to the American public. Or pork-rind-eater, for that matter. His son, however, more than made up for his father's failings in this regard.
Bill Clinton, of course, can easily be seen sitting next to you at the bar. So easily, in fact, that he could even be plausibly seen next to you drinking from a beer bong at a frat-house keg party. As could George W. Bush, at least before he swore off alcohol. Both Bush and Clinton were "men of the people" and passed the "having a beer" test easily. Their nicknames -- "Bubba" and "Dubya" -- both sound like guys you'd see down at your local watering hole. Even Clinton's wife Hillary looked pretty darn comfortable not just downing beers on the campaign trail, but knocking back shots of whiskey as well.
But Barack Obama is the first president to not just accept the premise of the "having a beer" test, but to embrace it and turn it into reality. After the storm of controversy over his "acting stupidly" remark, he has grasped this particular nettle and will be hosting the policeman and the professor for a few cold ones at the White House. The idea of this beer session may have even been suggested by the police officer himself (reports vary). Obama, to his credit, realized the political value of not just talking about having a beer with his fellow citizens, but actually doing it. This was (no doubt) due to the fact that the policeman said he was an Obama supporter, meaning the likelihood that the event would blow up in Obama's face somehow was lessened.
So we will have a photo op of the three men, cold glasses in hand (it's a bit of a stretch to picture them at the White House with bottles -- or even cans -- in hand, I have to admit), speaking together amicably. Behind closed doors, they may even work out their differences over what actually happened that day. Each may learn something from the other. Because it is already a media tempest, this may wind up as a political accomplishment for Obama. At the very least, it will provide newscasters everywhere a chance to repeat ad nauseum the phrase "teachable moment."
What will it all mean in the larger sense? I have no idea. Will it make an impact in the "national discussion" on race relations? Again, I have no idea. It could, but then again, it could not. Will it make policemen think twice if they find themselves in similar situations? Will it make anyone think twice about giving cops "attitude" in similar situations? I have no idea.
But, in the future, it may give all of us something to remember and point to whenever the phrase "sit down and have a beer" comes up when talking about politicians. Ten or twenty years from now, I can see political commentators saying things like "...when Barack Obama famously had a beer with the policeman and the professor..." when talking of more recent politicians measuring up to the "having a beer" standard.
After all is said and done, the only outcome I can accurately predict from the entire episode is that the "having a beer" metaphor will become stronger than ever. Everyone likes beer, it seems -- Democrats, Republicans, independents. Beer is non-partisan, and non-political (even after it is used as a political prop). Americans didn't invent beer, but we did invent the concept of serving it ice-cold (as anyone who has visited Britain will attest). To me, this seems such a valuable contribution to humanity that we should all be proud of it.
To paraphrase W.C. Fields: Every man needs to believe in something -- I believe I'll have another ice-cold beer.
[Note: I got that story about Johnson from a wonderful book titled "Secret Lives Of The U.S. Presidents" by Cormac O'Brien, which is chock full of amusing stories about all our presidents, and which I recommend highly to people who love both politics and trivia.]
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
-- Chris Weigant