Cool Kids Versus Squares, Continued

Yesterday, I wrote a post looking at an ad aired by GOP uber-super-PAC American Crossroads that went after Barack Obama for being a "celebrity" and doing things like going on Jimmy Fallon's television show. I argued that it looked like once again we are in for a renewal of the old battles that started in the 1960s between the squares and the cool kids (or, depending on the historical moment, the jocks and the hippies). In the course of my post, I talked about Barack Obama's image of "cool," which he certainly works to cultivate. I'm hardly the first person to note this about Obama, and I didn't actually say anything about whether coolness makes one a good president. Nevertheless, Matt Welch at Reason seemed positively outraged, enough to illustrate his post responding to mine with a giant picture of me (great!) and accuse me of arguing something I didn't actually argue (not so great). Here's what he had to say (it begins with a reference to the "pound hug," that combo handshake-hug thing):

While I am always tickled to learn a new phrase, a presidential pound hug can go pound sand: What matters is how you govern. It will surprise approximately no one that Paul Waldman was much more critical of the gap between presidential image and performance back when it wasn't his team in the White House. Now, though, with a heavy sigh, this Joe Cool of opinion journalism is being dragged reluctantly back into the political quad...

Then he goes on to quote me, and quotes Glenn Reynolds, equally outraged by all appearances, saying that there's nothing cool about Obama's ramping up of the war on marijuana, opposition to gay marriage, and so on. But here's what they seem to be missing.

You see, there's a difference between "cool" as an idea and a demeanor, and "cool" as a sixth-grader might use the term, meaning just "awesome!" Matt apparently thought I was using it in the latter sense, which probably accounts for him referring to my post as "Obama-fluffing," but this is something I've written about before. For instance, it's what makes Obama hard to parody, and is the reason there are no good comedic impressions of him the way there were of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. It's not because Obama is awesome, it's because coolness dictates that you remain calm and a little removed at all times, which means that you don't have the kind of outsized traits and habits that can be exaggerated into comedy. Obama doesn't get goofy like Bush sometimes did, and he won't get on his knees and weep with you like Bill Clinton would. There's no value judgment there; it's just who he is.

And as for Matt's contention that I'm not critical of the gap between presidential image and performance because my team isn't in the White House, I'd say two things. First, never once did I say that Obama's "cool" demeanor makes him a good president, nor would I (for the record, on the whole I think his performance is mixed). When it came to George W. Bush (that link takes you to an interview I did years ago about him), I was most critical of his image-making when it was in the service of deceit, as it was so often. (As a side note, Bush's greatest deceptions came when he was trying to convince the public to go along with something he was about to do, not to convince them that he had been doing a good job already).

And second, what brought this whole thing up was an attempt at public persuasion by Republicans. Obviously, Obama goes on Jimmy Fallon's show because he's trying to convince young people that he's still sympatico with them and they should get out and work for him like they did four years ago. But it was Rove's group that produced the ad stringing together clips of Obama with celebrities and wearing sunglasses. They're the ones with the greatest eagerness to stir up the culture war. If anybody's arguing that Obama is cool, it's them; it's just that they want voters to think that's a reason to vote against him, whereas I'd argue that it isn't a good reason to vote either way.

I'm still sorting out what kind of a president I think Mitt Romney would be—it's an extremely difficult question to answer, because he has some genuine gifts and also has some spectacular weaknesses, even aside from the ideological differences I have with him. But the fact that he's about as square as they come won't have any effect on whether he can pass legislation or how he'd deal with an international crisis. It will, however, affect how Americans think about him. Which may not matter as much, but it still matters.

Comments

Sigh..... you missed Welch and Reynolds' point. The argument isn't "It doesn't matter that he is cool!!" The argument is that a mom jeans, bike helmet wearing geek, that sounds likes a black comedian's impression of a nerdy white guy, that can't throw a baseball sixty feet, six inches without three hopping it is anything but cool.

Especially long sigh accompanied by head shaking .... You missed Waldman's point that that's not the definition of "cool" he's talking about.

It was yesterday. He's making up a new usage just to avoid admitting he made a fool of himself.

"and is the reason there are no good comedic impressions of him the way there were of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton"

If you dared listen to Rush Limbaugh, you might realize that there are simply no good comedic impressions in the state-controlled media.

"But the fact that he's about as square as they come won't have any effect on whether he can pass legislation or how he'd deal with an international crisis. It will, however, affect how Americans think about him. Which may not matter as much, but it still matters."

You assume that everyone sees this the same way. That if a president doesn't seem hip, he can't govern.

Fortunately most Americans are over 14 years of age emotionally, and see someone who isn't desperately trying to be cool as serious and capable. And the reverse.

thou doth protest too much...compare how many words you lavish on two brief observations to the originals. moreover, neither reflected 'outrage' so much as simple ridicule and derision as in 'how pathetic'. and it is pathetic and far less perceptive then Reynolds (brief) takedown (mom jeans!) your patronizing distinction between the two usages (thanks professor! ) and coy claim that you never ascribe a leadership value just adds to the general hilarity of what today's best and brightest imagine to be scintillating journalism.

"You missed Waldman's point that that's not the definition of "cool" he's talking about." Right. Sure. Especially with this closing, "I'm still sorting out what kind of a president I think Mitt Romney would be... But the fact that he's about as square as they come..."
So it's the 'not square' cool, y'dig? (I knew that you could.)

There definitely seems to be a disconnect. You are using "cool" to describe Obama as in he's reserved. The opposite of "warm." You then describe Romney as "square" which is the opposite of cool when it's used to mean "awesome" or "hip." Any confusion as to this by your readers is genuine. (Or you changed your mind when you got called on it, but I'll stick with your story, as it fits his personality). While I don't think Obama as a person is particularly "cool", I will grant you that he frequently comes off as aloof or distant. I couldn't care less about the coolness of any of our candidates. Collectively, and unfortunately, we all too often seem to be swayed by appearances these days.

Agreed, botw. This author is paid to write, and in two articles he cannot make it clear whether he is saying "Obama is hip" or "Obama is aloof". Very sad.

So what you're saying is, you made a fool of yourself with your assertion and are now walking it back.

Apparently Mr. Waldman was serious when he wrote this stuff. His kind of seriousness is putting satire, parody and mockery out of business.

Wow, the obtuseness in this reply is so awesome its almost cool and the walk back almost, but not quite succeeds. I can't believe you did not get Reynolds point but when you're left trying to parse the meaning of cool, you should know its time to cut your loses. Next time be a journalist instead of a fawning psychophant - people will respect you more in the morning.

I think you are being a bit dishonest here, which I am beginning to suspect is a required trait to be any kind of journalist these days...your post is about "Cool kids vs. squares" and the examples you provide have nothing to do with demeanor, its about social categories form the not so distant past...jocks vs, cool, your comparison of smacks a bit of animal house reference material and maybe that's a fitting metaphor...its all fun and games until the secret service under the authority of our "cool" President knocks up a few hookers...

As I watch this so called "cool" guy, I am frankly tired of the disconnect, the utter lack of taking responsibility for his own mess, and the disturbing lack of respect he demonstrates to the average working class intelligence...and unfortunately you are helping reinforce this disdain by suggesting he is some kind of class hero...frankly the "cool" kids I grew up with are the LAST people I want in charge, the elitist mentality required to join that club is the exact opposite of a productive individual...I'm sure if you glance back at your history, you will have to agree...the kids sitting around smoking pot are not the ones we need running the country.

Thanks for helping us see how dangerous this "cool" thing really is...I think I'll vote for a square or a jock, anything but cool.

SNL has had no problem parodying Obama.

You can sense how proud the author is with his analysis of what the 'bump' signifies...funny. What might have been interesting is if he had observed how politicians cannot be cool- that politics is antithetical to cool and how authentically cool people don't go into politics and when a real cool person associates the self with politics it always makes them less not more cool. Think about it...

Forget it, folks, Waldman will never understand that to those of us who have not been throwing our panties at Obama for the past four years he looks more like a slightly grown up Urkel than the cool guy they imagine him to be.

Urkel with a bad attitude and a thin skin.

The President? Hard to mock? Really? Why, it's almost as if you never heard him claim to have eaten dog meat. What could be easier to mock than that?

Don't confuse your unwillingness to mock someone with his ability to be mocked.

Obama is easily parodied. For right handed men, simply throw a ball with your left hand. Also, pull your pants up to your nipples and do your best Dave Chappelle white people voice.

Let's see ... you write a 425-word post effervescing about Zero's "coolness." Then you write an 800-word post trying to explain/defend your effervescent silliness.

What's next? A book?

Cool.

No, Paul, what makes Obama hard to parody is that most everyone who tried was then accused of racism and bigotry.

You and Chris Matthews can keep your tingles, but this Socialist has to go.

I think you have hit it right on the nose. Being a "liberal" (or what passes for a liberal nowadays) is all about adopting the latest ideas and opinions that are "cool" and that are all shared by the other "cool kids." In other words, to be a Liberal is to be an intellectual Fashionista...

The Right, on the other hand, tend to think for themselves.....and when you do that you often fall back on those old tired and true truths that are...you know.....true?

But who wants that? Who wants someone who can run an economy when you can have a cool black guy "slow spin" (or whatever--I do not care) the News?

How cool is Obama really?

He's always reminded me of sort of a black Mr. Bean.

You have missed the essential nature of Cool: it is effortless.

If you are making a concerted effort to "cultivate" it, as Obama is, then you ain't actually got it.

"The Right, on the other hand, tend to think for themselves.....and when you do that you often fall back on those old tired and true truths that are...you know.....true?"

Wait, when did right-wingers start thinking for themselves?

Look at pictures from college of Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush, Ford they were the cool guys. Look at the jealous squares' pictures from college Clinton, Carvill, Carter, Axelrod, Gore, Begala, ballet major Rahm.
Obama and the others have been jealous of good looking handsome rich guys (like Romney) their whole lives.

By your definition, Chauncey Gardner was cool, so was Forrest Gump. Obama can"t throw a baseball 60 feet - an All-American wuss of a socialist. And that is cool??

any half literate person with an ounce of intellectual honesty that read the original article knows that the writter is lying when he they claim that "cool" was synomous with "aloof" Like O'bama and his minions, the writter is terribly insecure and badly wants to be thought of as cool, so they can never admit they are wrong. And yes, we are mocking both you and O'bama.

Whoever wrote the Obama/cool/pound hug has clearly mastered the gay/metro writing style. How limp.

you should know by now that they argue something different than what was actually said. they can beat the crap out of any straw man in the world. now you have the morons posting their stupid crap in your comments because that's all they have.

besides you have to admit that Willard's "who let the dogs out" is the epitome of cool. He is one hep cat.

Don't hurt Paul Waldman's feelings! Just because he wrote himself into a corner about something stupid and then missed the point of some simple criticism does not mean that you may mock him! He is a human being, perhaps thin-skinned, like Obama, but nonetheless a man who is not a tool and is giving very significant input for our super cool hero (the President). Duly noted, Paul Waldman.

Oh, and in case you think I was serious, I'M BEING SARCASTIC!!! HA!! HA HA! HA!!!! Did you get that, you deep-thinking lackey? HA! HA! HAAAA!! HA HA! Now, if only it were easier to act like a stupid putz on the Internet.... Thanks for the inspiration Paul Waldman.

So, Waldman claims he is using "cool" in the sense of "calm, cool, and collected", but never uses either of the other two words, just "cool". Color me skeptical and believing Waldman is trying, after the fact, to escape the pit of his own making.

You commenters are being unfair. And it's presumptuous to judge from just one photo. I for one am willing to take Mr. Waldman at his word that he is as cool as he claims he is.

If the cool '60s taught us anything, it's that it is tremendously cool to carry water for a hugely powerful 50+ year old politician in a suit if he happens to have a (D) after his name. That's what all those cool hippies back then were always protesting about right? More adulation for the powerful 50+ year old (D) in a suit?

The other thing to remember is that 'progressives' are the Smart, reality-based faction. So choosing a President based on 'coolness' (and, writing about that 'coolness') must - despite all appearances - be tremendously Smart and intellectual in some way that the rest of us are just too dumb and backward to perceive.

The truest and most significant line in this whole backpedaling post, “I'd argue that it isn't a good reason to vote either way” (as in Romney vs. Obama.) Absolutely, and here’s just one illustration: http://commonsenseopenmind.wordpress.com/ The only honest candidate out there who would truly stand behind his message of personal liberty and smaller, less intrusive government is Ron Paul. His young followers find this old guy quite cool despite his shortage of pound hugs. But not enough people understand what Paul’s about because the media continues to ignore him.

I'm no more a fan of Bush than I am of Obama. But photos are revealing.

http://lub-cdn.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/superphoto/11128743.jpg

http://www.thedailyrash.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/600b09201e1.jpg

https://encrypted-tbn3.google.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcR5oRgf1H9RMxKrMFiaHkOOEodnfTv32M46VYyOnU7-ctx3NP4Hpg

https://encrypted-tbn1.google.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSVx0RhSoZB0UZzJJq882VH3wih159mPud_hg1DCrn8dIQpdDNs

Cool people don't become politicians. Moreover, cool people don't need to convince their starry eyed media groupies to plant stories about how cool they are. It's self-negating - as soon as you say you're cool, you're not. Getting other people to say it for you makes no difference.

Nice article, thanks for the information.

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I'm somewhat confident that none of the dissenting commenters are below thirty. Well, maybe the Paultard.

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