Andrew Sullivan, writer/blogger for The Atlantic, was the first person I saw who made the best observation about Bobby Jindal’s GOP response to President Obama’s speech Tuesday: stilted, faux-folksy, amateurish; Jindal moved and sounded like Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock. At this point, everyone has had their say about Jindal and, honestly, I feel a little bad for the guy but, frankly, I immediately thought he was someone else who got caught out by the Barack Obama phenomenon. It’s not so much that Obama is a great speaker so much as it is that he makes it look so damn easy that folks, like Jindal the other night, Caroline Kennedy for about fifteen minutes and, of course, the glorious spectacle of Sarah Palin, fool themselves into thinking they can do it too. But there’s a lot that goes into why and how Obama, in the words of the great African-American poet, Mos Def, “makes the eloquent look effortless.”
Ironically, Jindal had the opposite problem that Sarah Palin did. With Palin, when she was scripted and controlled, she did wonderfully. In retrospect, the only time I was really concerned about the Republican ticket was when she gave speeches. She’s personable, has great physical presence and delivers a script in a big way. But, as we all know, once you get a teleprompter away from the esteemed governor, it all falls apart pretty quickly and, suddenly, asking someone with a Journalism degree what newspapers they read is a “gotcha question.” Jindal, on the other hand, is a poised and articulate man and his sheer brilliance shines through when he’s in an uncontrolled interview setting. The bitter irony is that he was much more of a presence, yesterday morning on the talk show circuit, responding to his official “coming out party” than he was the night before. Putting the two aspects together, doing well in speeches and in conversation, compared to the president, seems to be the issue for the GOP. And, again, Obama seems to do it so easily that people get caught into thinking, well, it is.
The thing is, I believe Barack Obama works really hard at making what he does look not that hard at all. In fact, this action can be linked to a centuries old African-American defense mechanism that sociologists have termed, “the cool pose” most famously in the book by the same name by Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson. This disaffected, nonchalant attitude towards achievement can originally be traced to black people, usually men, hiding their weakness from an oppressive system with the thinking being that you shouldn’t let them find a chink in your armor. Brothers have turned, “never let them see you sweat” into a mantra. The cool pose has most often been publically noted in musicians, like Miles Davis, or athletes, like Michael Jordan but I think Barack Obama might be the first really public political figure who we can point to who utilizes the action (mainly because the vast majority of black politicians have historically come from the more expressive and outwardly emotive Baptist preacher tradition…) So, when folks look from the outside, without acknowledging the work that must go into being Barack Obama, I don’t necessarily fault them for thinking it looks easy because I think he’s doing it on purpose.
(And just to be clear, I don’t think all brothers manage this as well as others. I saw Michael Steele’s goofy ass on Morning Joe yesterday wearing some kind of ridiculous zoot suit, looking like he was in Janet Jackson’s “Alright” video. I kept expecting Heavy D and Cab Calloway to come strutting from out back talking about things were copacetic. Between that and his, “we need to inject some hip-hop into the Republican Party” plan, Steele is the epitome of Guy Trying Too Hard.)
The other reason I believe Obama consciously shapes his swagger around archetypes like Billy Dee Williams or Marvin Gaye is because of the manner in which he consciously discusses wanting to be connected to black culture and I think there’s something there. Here’s something I just found out; Bobby Jindal’s name isn’t Bobby. It’s Piyush. By all accounts, he renamed himself Bobby after Bobby Brady on The Brady Bunch. Now, I’m not trying to go into a whole name thing but I do find it a striking detail when contrasted with Obama’s introspective journey from Barry to Barack that he outlines in Dreams of my Father. For him, using his full first name and, even coming to terms with his middle name Hussein, made he feel more comfortable with himself and more connected to black culture where, again, where I think he accessed his rhetorical style.
I’m going to take the governor at his word and assume he feels like he is a Bobby and doesn’t need the psychological journey that Obama needed with his own name but the hard reality is that “Bobby” makes a lot of people feel much more comfortable than “Piyush” would. And, frankly, I think those were the people that his handlers were trying to tap into the other night. He may have come off sounding like Kenneth the Page but his rehearsers and speech writers were trying to invoke the folksy Reagan and the audience for that, not only need a Bobby but they need that Bobby to eat up valuable time relaying his personal story when he should have been more pointed with his criticism. Regardless of the reason why he renamed himself, Bobby is the type of name that works to make people of color appear nonthreatening , just like taking half of your response time to convince folks that “I’m just like you!” But if the last election showed up anything it’s that America is okay with folks that aren’t “just like you” so, to be effective, I think Jindal is going to have to leave that part alone and concentrate on getting his qualifications across.
Look, I’m pulling for both Jindal and Michael Steele and their goal of revamping the GOP because I believe in having a viable choice. Turkey with pepper jack cheese on marble rye is my favorite sandwich but I would love to not have to eat it every day. Once in a while, it’d be great to choose between that and a cheeseburger. Right now, my choice is the turkey sandwich or a “We’ve Constructed Our Entire Modern Party On A Platform Of Open Hostility Towards Poor People and Minorities” hoagie. To get to that, I think Jindal-and Michael Steele- are going to have to figure out a way to ignore the voices asking for Bobby and figure out a way to tap into their inner Piyush.