From the archive
It’s the first time a sitting President has ever appeared at the Apollo, and people are here to show Barack Obama that they’ve got his back[…] There is something special about this event for Obama, which shows up in the way he torques familiar lines, making them shorter and punchier, and a touch more idiomatic. “When you decide to support somebody named Barack Hussein Obama for president, you’re not doing it because you think it’s a cakewalk,” he says—cakewalk being a perfectly good word to use in place of easy and also a word that has a particular resonance for an older black audience. The name of an ancient ragtime step with its roots in slavery days, cakewalk conveys a sense of movement and of foolish pride, as in the “cakewalk strut,” an evolution of the dance. Sitting in the dark of the Apollo, I understand something new about Obama’s relationship to blackness—namely, that the emotion behind his performance of his own identity is entirely authentic, even as he understands race as a cultural construct. There is something wonderfully strange about having a president who can give evidence of functioning on so many levels at once. For a moment I think about whether the people who give money to his campaign are paying for the same rarefied and self-flattering moment of pleasure, or whether he provides subtly different but similarly exclusive moments to different donors.
“You did it because you understood the campaign wasn’t about me,” he says, speaking out into a dark space filled with living people who he recognizes as being like himself, in a dimension that he doesn’t share with the people at Daniel. “It was a vision that was big and compassionate and bold, and it said, In America, if you work hard you’ve got a chance. You got a chance to get ahead,” he says, his voice taking on that folksy edge that during the 2008 campaign made him sound like some nerdy black kid in a sweater-vest imitating Bill Clinton. Maybe it took a while for us to get used to hearing him plain, or maybe he is more confident in himself now, or more confident in his audience. Or maybe this trajectory was alive in his mind the whole time. Artificial and also in many ways inevitable, the resulting fusion of the social category of race and his own experience of loss and pain dissolved an emotional paradox in a way that carries deep and continuing meaning for him, and that he is afraid to touch […]
Then it was off with Bill Clinton to the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf, where Jon Bon Jovi did an acoustic version of “Living on a Prayer” followed by the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” At the New Amsterdam Theatre, there is a reading of quotations from Walt Whitman, Gary Shteyngart, and John Updike, who is credited with the line “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy,” which proves, I am sad to admit, that one of America’s greatest prose artists of the later twentieth century was also something of a moron. The curtain comes down at the end of the first act, and Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” comes on again, a song that Barry Obama most likely did roof hits to with the Choom Gang while playing hooky from Punahou.
The fact that the President was a stoner in high school is only one of the many things I like about him, I am thinking, as my attention wanders over to Bill Clinton, the guy who didn’t inhale. So much has happened since he left office—9/11, Iraq, the iPhone, the financial implosion. Silver-haired, standing in front of the American flag, he looks like an escapee from Madame Tussauds. “You know, I was worried about getting half a step slow doing this,” Clinton admits, adding, “I’m a little rusty at politics.” Say it ain’t so, Bill, you sly dog you. But there is a reason Clinton is here today with Obama—aside from their common goal of getting money from Marc Lasry.
“I know things are not perfect now,” he says. “I know they’re a little slow now.” The giveaway is that he repeats the line: he likes the fact that things are slow. It makes him look good and Obama look bad. “Starting on September the fifteenth, we entered the deepest crash since the Great Depression,” he helpfully explains. My mind wanders away from the predictable scene of the wily Clinton undermining his young successor and settles on his hair. Bill Clinton’s hair has star quality. His silver mane is so textured and gorgeous, there’s no way he’s ever going back to Little Rock for a haircut. “If you look at history, those things take five or ten years to get over,” he is saying, “and if there’s a housing collapse along with it, closer to ten years. He’s on schedule to beat that record.” Later, summing up, Clinton looks out at the crowd of 1,700 true believers, most of whom coughed up $250 per ticket for a glimpse of the President and a passel of show tunes. He bites his lip, searching for a surefire way to clinch the deal.
“He did the best he could with a lousy hand,” he offers. I can see the campaign bumper sticker now: He Did The Best He Could With A Lousy Hand. Paid For By Obama/Biden 2012. Print it, folks! “Give us a twenty-first-century economy we can all be a part of,” Clinton urges, showing us that it is possible to do the big-think reframing thing that Obama is too chicken to try. It’s not you, Bill, I am thinking. It’s the pictures that got small.
At 10 P.M. sharp, Obama walks onstage to rousing applause and starts to speak, while Clinton sits ten feet away from him on a chair and runs through active-listening poses, seamlessly transitioning from one to another, like an adept of Vinyasa yoga. There is Richard Branson pose, and Bono pose, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn pose, honed at countless global seminars on poverty and microlending in Africa. I absorb knowledge like a sponge, which is why in 2016 I will be elected secretary-general of the U.N., which by then will be the most important job in the world, if for no other reason than the fact that it will belong to me, Bill Clinton. I’m ready, folks. But Obama can’t stand me. He made Hillary secretary of state in order to cut my balls off. Now he wants me to pull his irons out of the fire, and I think the best way to do that is to tell the truth, which is that Obama is at least a medium-size stack of hundreds better than the millionaire Mormon leveraged-buyout stiff who wants to be president of “Amercia.”
Obama turns to face Clinton, his political father, or at least the father of the Democratic Party to which he is heir. “Shortly after I had been elected—Bill can relate to this,” he says, “the Secret Service bubble shrinks and it starts really clamping down.” The crowd laughs, glad to be included in the amiable dialogue between these two masters of the political universe and wondering what is coming next. “And the thing that you miss most when you’re president—extraordinary privilege, and a really nice plane, and all kinds of stuff,” Obama says, as if suddenly recollecting that there are some good things about the job, “but suddenly, not only have you lost your anonymity, but your capacity to just wander around and go into a bookstore, or go to a coffee shop, or walk through Central Park.”
He is talking half to himself and half to Bubba, who also understands the bubble. “So I was saying,” he continues. “It was a beautiful day and I had just been driving through Manhattan, and I saw Margo,” he says, referring to one of the producers of Barack on Broadway, the estimable Margo Lion, winner of no fewer than twenty Tonys. “And I said, you know, I just desperately want to take a walk through Central Park again, and just remember what that feels like. But the problem is, obviously, it’s hard to do now.” He asked Margo Lion for help, he says, and about a week later he received a fake mustache. “And I tried it on and I thought it looked pretty good,” he says, as the crowd laughs. “But when I tested this scheme with the Secret Service, they said it didn’t look good enough. But I kept it,” he adds. “So if a couple years from now you see a guy with big ears and a mustache”—the crowd laughs—“just pretend you don’t know who it is. Just look away”—the crowd laughs harder—“Eating a hot dog, you know.”
It’s an unusually personal anecdote for one of these events, a soft-shoe fantasy of disguise and escape presented as a harmless bit of persiflage. The internal suggestion that in order to appear normal he must disguise himself is always there, and has had a negative effect on his presidency. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like, whether you’re black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, able, disabled—it doesn’t matter,” he says. “You’ve got a stake in this country,” he says. “You’ve got a claim on this country.” Clinton massages his chin and then freezes the pose, presenting himself as a sculptural form, The Listener. Which one is it, a stake in or a claim on? That Barack Obama is a weird cat. That racial shit will fuck anyone up. He drops both his hands to his lap to give the audience the straight profile, Clinton Rex.