Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hillary Clinton as Annie Oakley?

As often happens here on this blog, because we don't have a formal editorial process, different writers post articles related to the same or similar material, albeit from often different perspectives. See Bent’s article bellow, Barack Mean to Bubba, which also deals with the topic of this blogpost. Although we have approached the subject from different perspectives these two articles should be seen as complimentary.

One of the many interesting aspects of American politics are the ways popular cultural narratives are manifested, especially as deliberate campaign constructions.

This post explores the current brouhaha over Barack Obama's alleged "elitist" remarks through the lens of the cowboy cultural narrative, both as campaign rhetoric and visual media representation.

In The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century, R.W.B. Lewis coined the term “American Adam” in reference to the cowboy and noted, “It is the birth of an archetypal, still finely individualized character, which [D.H.] Lawrence identifies as ‘the essential American soul…an isolate, almost selfless, stoic, enduring man’” (104). Lewis claimed that the archetype – the American Adam – was “birth[ed] on American soil” and in the American imagination the late nineteenth/turn of the century cowboy came to be perceived as a uniquely American creation. Hence, the mythological construction of the cowboy, built on the foundation of the medieval English knight, was a crucial element in the creation of nationalist sentiment in post-Civil War America. (Moskowitz, 2006)

I've been attracted to the Obama campaign however precisely because it challenges many of the narratives which have been so dominant in recent years, often turning conventional wisdom on its head. His speech on race serves as a great example, tackling head on what would have been considered political suicide. Two earlier posts, The Politics of Gotham and Postmodern Presidential Branding, also demonstrate that his “brand of change” represent a break from the clichéd narratives dominant in politics since "the Cowboy" came to power in 1980.

When Obama’s recent remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser became political fodder, he once again responded by undercutting a popular or dominant cultural narrative. But first, here's the statement which the press, and both the McCain and Clinton campaigns had seized upon;

“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

photo: Alex Brandon / AP in Time MagazineAri Kelman has an interesting analysis and further background of the incident here. Obama's statement has been attacked first and foremost as elitist. The image here which accompanies this Time Magazine article adds a perfect visual of Obama's alleged elitism. While the posture and facial expression captured relate "aloofness" the subtext reads that "change" is phony as Obama's body position blocks out the letters. The Bag has deconstructed a similar image here. Within the politicized cowboy narrative, the "Eastern Elite" represents the antithesis to the "American Adam." By portraying Obama as such he is vilified, as an enemy not only against the "common man" but as a corruption of America's frontier ethos. While the Turner thesis is mostly appreciated today in academia within its historical context, it continues to serve as political gospel within much of the DC political class.

Update: The photo above was online yesterday but has since been replaced with another, less explicit portrayal. It's curious as to why the replacement was introduced today.

Camp Clinton, has repeatedly demonstrated a strategy that embraces Republican and media talking points. In a very odd, but increasingly typical Clinton move she even affirmed a common Republican talking point stating that both Gore and Kerry lost in 2000 and 2004 respectively because they were perceived as elitist.

But it gets more interesting. She builds the case against Obama's elitism even further by claiming he's anti-2nd Amendment, and portrays herself as part of America’s rich gun-loving cultural heritage.
“You know, my dad took me out behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton and taught me how to shoot when I was a little girl," You know, some people now continue to teach their children and their grandchildren. It's part of culture. It's part of a way of life. People enjoy hunting and shooting because it's an important part of who they are. Not because they are bitter."

There are of course many Americans who hunt and fish, who have an affinity to the "outdoors sportsman's ethos." The hunting trips with my grandfather our some of my fondest memories. In America, cowboys are still heroes and the modern hunter plays into this image. But the image of Clinton as a hunter just feels completely inauthentic and unbelievable.

Obama has continually proven adapt at political jujitsu, turning one's opponent's perceived strengths against them. Take this stump speech at a union gathering in Pennsylvania for example. Rather than defend his comments, Obama counters and refocuses his campaign message. He first takes up the elitist charge from the McCain campaign, turning it back against them.
"here's a guy who wants to perpetuate the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans while ordinary folks are struggling to pay the gas bill, and light bill, and gas at the pump, and he's saying I'm out of touch? Do you think I'm out of touch or do you think he's out of touch!?"

Then he narrows in on Clinton, saying, "she knows better, shame on her" which is also a reference to her own words she used against him when talking about health care a few months back. The most artful and powerful part of Obama's talk was followed with his reference to Hillary Clinton as Annie Oakley, the famous cowgirl of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows.
"She's running around talking about how this is an insult to sportsmen, how she values the 2nd Amendment. She's talking like she's Annie Oakley. Hillary Clinton's out there like you know she's out in a duck blind every Sunday. She's packin' a six shooter! Come on, she knows better."
Hillary's portrayal of herself was meant to ingratiate herself within a cultural tradition. However, Obama takes that narrative "hunters and fishers" and traces it back to its cowboy myth origins by invoking Annie Oakley, ‘the essential American soul…an isolate, almost selfless, stoic, enduring [man]’” Oakley, though not an "authentic cowgirl" herself is mythologized as such and by comparing Clinton to Oakley, the narrative becomes absurd.

That's not to say that contemporary female politicians can't convincingly portray the cowboy myth. Anne Richard's, the Governor of Texas who was defeated (outcowboyed by Rove, some would argue) by George Bush comes to mind. When Obama cleverly says about Clinton, "I want to see that picture of her out there in the duck blind" he knows one doesn't exist. Anne Richards on the other hand was authentic and believable. (Notice the yellow rose on her lapel). Here's an image of Richards, presumably in South Texas, on an actual (non PR produced) bird hunt. But it's this legendary photo from the cover of Texas Monthly that will always stand out for me. Before her defeat to Bush, she was even rumored to be a potential presidential candidate. Here the motorcycle replaces the horse, and Richard's looks as comfortable in the saddle of a Harley Davidson as Annie Oakley was in the saddle of a horse. Could anyone conceivably picture Clinton on that hog?

While I contend that Obama has very cleverly exploited the cowboy narrative against Clinton, Clinton herself seems to have made a gross misjudgment by attaching herself to it. Rather than vilify Obama, who could never convincingly be a credible cowboy, Hillary seems to have framed McCain as the vastly superior candidate in the race. Remember her remarks that only she and McCain had the experience to answer the 3am phone call? By siding with McCain, she inadvertently poses the question, do you want a "real maverick" or a faux Annie Oakley?
Which brings me to McCain where I end this discussion. Should Obama ask to see a picture of McCain in a duck blind there would be no shortage. Whether McCain's "maverick" image is justified or not is irrelevant to this post. There are certainly no shortages of modern day cowboy anecdotes of McCain in the media. McCain's self-professed political hero is Theordor Roosevelt, who was himself no stranger to publicly portraying the cowboy hero myth. Here's what McCain said about his political hero at a 2002 speech at the University of Southern California;
Theodore Roosevelt is one of my greatest political heroes. The “strenuous life” was T.R.’s definition of Americanism, a celebration of America’s pioneer ethos, the virtues that had won the West and inspired our belief in ourselves as the New Jerusalem, bound by sacred duty to suffer hardship and risk danger to protect the values of our civilization and impart them to humanity. “We cannot sit huddled within our borders,” he warned, “and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond.”

There's no shortage of visual imagery portraying McCain as the "maverick", a modern day "Rough Rider".

1) President Theodore Roosevelt with naturalist John Muir at Yosemite in 1903.
2) John McCain, "Prisoner of Conscience" Vanity Fair, February 2007.

While I don't know how the production details of Vanity Fair shoot came to be, in the photo above, the similarities to the 1903 photograph are recreated to near precision. It's hard to imagine the TR photo wasn't used as a template. McCain's attire, stance and even his stare, all resemble TR's as closely as possible for a 21st century recreation. Even McCain's bird dog, redundant on a fly fishing trip, replaces Muir, facing the same direction with a similar stare into the distance. The dog's long shaggy ears even resemble Muir's long bushy beard.

Several books have recently been released that address the media's role in creating and perpetuating McCain "the maverick", which rely on and reproduce the established mythological cowboy narrative. Despite the attention that these authors will bring to the media's role in perpetuating myths, the majority of Americans will most likely continue to see McCain as he's been constructed, a postmodern TR. For Obama, should he become the Democratic nominee, voters will have a clear choice between two very different but compelling popular cultural narratives. Should Hillary go on to secure the nomination, the vote could come down to two false choices; "the real maverick" or " a faux Annie Oakley?" Given those choices, its not difficult to predict which cowpoke would be singing "happy trails."

Update: David Nye draws a similar conclusion on my point about Clinton's strategy here.