He’s reminding me of Adlai Stevenson, who, when I was a kid, was the Democrats nominee against Eisenhower.
I dug Stevenson, and not only because my old man was a functionary in the Essex County Democratic machine, but because I was a smart kid and Stevenson seemed like the smartest guy out there in politics to me at the time.
But he was up against a genuine hero, who was packaged smartly and a campaign to denigrate Stevenson’s intellectual image.
The Republicans, even then, were so good at that kind of stuff, it worked.
Both Stevenson and Ike were bald, but Stevenson had wisps of dark hair above his ears that gave his dome a more egg-like shape, and a less masculine image. Ike’s hair was gray, where he had any, and buzzed enough to give him the appearance of a completely shaven head, ala the genies in old Hollywood movies and cartoons, or men old enough to be your grandfather.
When you coupled that with his smile, which all the campaign photos did, he seemed not only benevolent and harmless, i.e. not scary, but also familiar and friendly and familial. That could’ve left him seeming too nice for the fear-filled early Cold War years of the 1950s, but behind the grandfatherly smile was the hero who won the Second World War, which nobody was allowed to forget, if they even could.
Meanwhile, Stevenson was talking about policy and liberal ideals and often complicated and deeply intellectual considerations to be made in such troubled times. But there was no image created to convey what made him familiar or friendly or familial.
It was in the interest of working people to vote for him, because he represented more their interests, as Democratic candidates almost always do, but a lot of those working people were veterans or families of veterans who often revered Ike as the man who defeated Hitler and ended the war. Maybe they thought he could do the same in the Korean conflict, which wasn’t going so well.
If Stevenson’s professorial air didn’t put those people off, the Republican campaign to depict him as an aloof, out-of-touch-with-the-common-man “egghead” did. Is it a coincidence that the term “ivory tower intellectual” became one of the major epithets in public discourse at the time, or the more common term “egghead” that even kids in my Catholic grammar school would use as a perjorative against anyone smarter than them?
One of the hit songs of that time was Frankie Lyman and The Teenagers singing “I’m Not a Know it All” (“don’t know why the trees are tall, don’t know why there’s morning dew, I only know that I love you…”) and Jo Stafford’s pop hit “Come down, come down, from your ivory tower.” I forget what the title of that tune was, but the lyrics made it clear that ivory tower intellectuals were unfeeling.
Stevenson was obviously a compassionate and highly intelligent man. But what the Republicans projected onto him, the public bought to a large extent, as they did the same for Ike. In fact, Ike was known for his incredible temper, while Stevenson was known for his gracious and often bemused tact and diplomacy, as well as kindness.
But if Obama were to somehow miraculously overcome Hilary’s momentum and end up the nominee in a race against Guilliani, it might look a lot like the Stevenson-Esienhower contest.
Rudy would be cast as the 9/11 hero, with the friendly smile and honestly masculine bald dome (despite his cross dressing tendencies and equally renowned temper, etc.) who is tough enough to defeat our enemies but warm and friendly enough to beam a toothy smile at the camera and wear a dress as a bravely funny party gesture.
Obama would be cast as the aloof professor, out of touch with the realities of the common man, which oddly enough could work among both black and white voters, since many whites could interpret that projection through their latent or blatant racism without having to feel like they were letting race determine the issue, and many blacks could do it through a filter of class and racial background gradation (and how “black” or “white” your African-American characteristics are).
In an odd way, a similar thing is already happening in the contest between Barak and Hilary, where she is cast as the more macho one, in terms of supporting the military and extreme defensive measures for national security etc., as well as seen as one of the heroes of the Clinton era who kept the forces of whatever evils plagued us then at bay, helping to preside over one of the longest periods of peace and prosperity, as well as government surpluses, in our history.
I don’t think there’s any way now to reverse those images, as they are becoming more and more set with each debate and the subsequent media frenzy to capitalize on any and all perceived differences in their stances and images.
If it does, as they are now predicting, come down to Rudy vs. Hilary, then Hilary will be cast as the aloof, unfeeling, out of touch with the realities of the common person’s life intellectual, and Rudy as the smiling tough guy, the hero with a heart and the common touch.
Either way, the Democrats are going to have to do a much better job at what the Republicans have been doing well since Ike, i.e. creating the terms and images on which the contest will be determined.