Social commentator Star Jones, who manages to look younger and thinner every time she shows up anywhere out in the open, captured today's deep political and cultural undercurrent in a comment this weekend to CNN's D.L. Hughley about why Alex Rodriguez and his steroid problem get more attention than old people in rest homes poisoned by bad peanut butter:
"He's cute," she said about Rodriguez. "And they (the King Nut victims) don't look good on the newspaper." (Thanks for the print plug, I think.)
Cute is the key to public interest, Ms. Jones repeated several times and, by extension, the entree to success. Brangelooney's empty-handed Oscar night notwithstanding.
Right there is an answer to the current Republican Party mystery of who am us, anyway, and how do we get there?
To begin with: Not cute enough.
Much as we hear his name thrown around, these are not Abe Lincoln's times, when a gangly guy with messy hair and a fondness for dirty jokes could actually get called a gorilla and be portrayed unambiguously by cartoonists as a monkey and still command the adoring reaction described during a campaign stop in 1858: "The bare sight of the man threw them into ecstasies. I could perceive that there was some magnetic influence at work that was perfectly inexplicable, which brought him and the masses into a mysterious correspondence with each other."
There's very little magic in the Party of No these days, if any.
The GOP in the modern world needs a whole lot more cute, and all its corollaries (dynamic, charismatic, etc.)
The only elected guy throwing out charisma in buckets right now -- didn't Sean Penn call him "elegant" last night in a crowd full of beauty and big personalities? -- is the leader of the Democratic Party, a.k.a. the most powerful man on earth. What Mr. Obama shares with Lincoln was described in Daniel Mark Epstein's book on the 16th President: Lincoln "had inspired the people because of uniqueness of character, rare gifts of communication and a vision that happened to belong to a country lawyer without an executive resume."
Throw in some drugs during the college years, the striking improbability of the post-racial nature of the last election and there it is: magic.
But let's go back to the cute thing.
Whenever our Republican representatives show up in a gaggle, or even individually on the cable channels, they look like a 1950s high school principal who just caught you cheating. Pinched, stern, and scolding. Definitely not cute. And I mean among elected officials and aspirants, not media types.
This reminds me of the early George W. Bush years, when it was kind of the reverse: Democrats moaned about Republicans hijacking popular culture but were themselves humorless and angry in the face rollicking and entertaining assaults from Rush, Bill and others. (The Dems later recovered thanks to pre-political Al Franken and Jon Stewart.)
There are actually some exceptions in the GOP, though not among true red Republicans, who seem to view cute as a left wing, traitorous disease. A few cute GOPers were prominent on the weekend gasbag shows where the two most repeated phrases were: "bipartisanship" and "for the people."
Meet The Press ran an old clip where Tim Russert asked then-Senator Obama if he was going to run for president or vice. "No, I will not," he said. But see? When you're cute, at least in politics -- not in sports; sorry, Michael Phelps -- there's no fallout for getting busted.
But, except for standouts like Louisiana's GOP governor Bobby Jindal and our own Arnold, who's more of a donklephant anyway -- they were doing most of the conciliatory on air talking Sunday -- the political atmosphere among Republicans these days is more about a back alley bludgeon than the spirit of harmonic convergence.
The blood spatter was significant for California Republican Senator Abel Maldonado at the state's GOP convention over the weekend, as the traditionally conservative members of his party tried to tenderize and eat him alive for being one of only six Republicans in Sacramento to vote for the new budget package.
On the national level, the mostly pale, middle-aged Republican governors herded out of the White House this morning and were almost obsequious about their meeting with President Obama on the stimulus package. This will no doubt further infuriate their GOP colleagues in Congress, who've been heeling to the tug on their leash by Mr. Limbaugh and his large bore, unforgiving attack on the President and his plans.
There, at that press conference, was Mr. Jindal again, called up specifically from the back of the pack by members of the press who can smell cute a mile away. He gently elbowed out of the way Pennsylvania Governor and group spokesperson Ed Rendell, who looks like Karl Malden in "On The Waterfront."
The most critical thing the handsome young governor said about Mr. Obama was that the president "let members of Congress write this (stimulus) bill." No direct attacks. We're supposed to be in an era of public humility, after all, a tone set by Mr. Obama on election night and a big piece of Abraham Lincoln's "aw shucks" political persona.
In fact, a minute later, the governor was talking about how proud all Americans were of Mr. Obama's historic election to office, a reference to a more racially open-minded electorate. Not to be cynical, but that may help some when Mr. Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants, mulls over his own rumored future run for president.
There are signs that cute is gaining ground with the GOP, however. Bobby Jindal, who uses the word "absolutely" a lot but is not an absolutist, will give the Republican response to Barack Obama's address to congress this Tuesday.