Independence Day is upon us, which means it's time to watch politicians stumble through the USA PHOTO OP. Mitt Romney will sing unknown verses of "America the Beautiful" with an Ashcroftian solemnity, while Barack Obama—as befits the office—will force two turkeys to have sex so they can sire the ceremonial turkey he will pardon on Thanksgiving. Unless that turkey is Alaskan, in which case it will be shredded for Patriotacos.
Watching candidates "recognize" the Fourth of July poses some questions for the electorate. Are we meant to applaud these guys for noticing a major holiday, achieving a signals recognition level a half-step above Johnny Got His Gun? Is it easier to identify the nationally sacred aspects of historical ritual when they're paired with the unmistakably profane?
Or, worse, do they really think that votes change because of this mummery?
Conventional wisdom says they do. Of course, this is the conventional wisdom of people paid to brainstorm, organize and execute political theater. Within the artificially frenetic campaign schedule, ideas in large number and bullet points are just like good ideas; appearing busy is the same as work. From there it's just a skip to suggesting the election can turn on whether one guy seems like he's nicer to eagles.
Apart from traditional American films like Gymkata—the story of how world champion Kurt Thomas combined gymnastics and karate to win the Cold War—this is all I plan to watch. Because today combines the funniest parts of "Up With People"-level history with candidates engaging in Joe Everyman kabuki.
The first ingredient is easy to spot, and if you have a mordant appetite, you can feast on it all day. July Fourth, in the American political kindergarten, is a day without slavery, an Amerindian genocide or wars that lack German enemies. Pointing that out is easy. What's more interesting, more awkward, and much more fun, is the lead-footed earnestness of July Fourth photo ops.
Nobody would be the least bit surprised if Obama appeared at Coney Island to eat a Nathan's hot dog and said, "What makes this hot dog great is that it was made by Jewish immigrants who came to this nation to find religious freedom and discovered free enterprise as well." NO! What makes Nathan's hot dogs great is that they are FUCKING DELICIOUS and also that a Japanese man who's the width of an indoor ficus came to America to eat 69 of them in 10 minutes. But Obama will feel obliged not just to pitch us events as "history collectibles" but to narrate them too. Apparently we need to try to be nostalgic for epochs we didn't experience and a promotional event that hasn't even ended yet.
The thing is, we participate in activities freighted with significance all the time, but we also realize that underlining that significance immediately questions its authenticity. Even at age eight, if your father had knelt by you on Christmas morning and said,
I have bought and assembled a bicycle as a gift for you—a symbol of the life I've given, the freedom I must give you and the freedom you must take for yourself. This bike is a bond between us and a means of breaking it. It is a vehicle for the exploration of yourself and the world around you. Now let's grab our gloves and go outside to enjoy the dialectic of having a catch...
you'd have stood there with a smile dying on your lips, your mind screaming, "WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?"
If something is powerful enough to move us, then we ought to be moved beyond self-reflexive commentary about its meaning. We're subject to its transformative power, rather than acting as observers of it. Looking at Coney Island or thinking about dads or listening to the "Star Spangled Banner" during a fireworks display is moving. It's a sudden clutch in the heart, at history on a macro and micro level. But "narrating" meaning—except in rare instances—makes the narration the object of focus. Beautiful things singled out as signifiers of "life events" destroy their actuality. American diversity or a hug with dad just becomes "The Most Photographed Barn in America."
But if it's probable that Obama will offer a forced narrative today, it's foreordained that Mitt Romney will do something cringeworthy. "Woof woof!" levels of embarrassment. If Dubya proved anything, it's that you can be a wealthy, drunk frat dude and fail your way through multiple businesses and into the White House if you're "a guy someone can have a beer with." And a thoroughly fake dude like Mitt Romney needs every bit of diapers, dogs, car payments, cookouts and gee-whiz touch-football real personhood that today can afford him.
Romney's been trying his "I EM WAN OF YOU, HYOOMANS" thing for years now, but it's gotten especially awkward in recent months. Some of his best friends are NFL owners, NASCAR owners, and a dressage horse that clops his hooves in alarm if he stands near a painting that is a forgery. One of his kids tweeted a picture of Mitt doing laundry on the trail. Mitt Romney: Bold. Also, Cheer and Gain.
I'm sure whomever told Tagg/Troof/Bort to take the picture said he was helping, but the tableau was absurd. Romney, a man who sells crazy for 14 hours per day, was wearing a dress shirt in the laundry room of a hotel, to perform a menial task before asking a nation of 300 million people to make him someone whose job description involves "good grasp of priorities." His attempt at a humanizing touch was to tell you the following:
- 1. He's willing to get sidetracked into doing laundry. (For president?)
- 2. He's surrounded by people whose job is to do ALL OF HIS JOBS, but he still stopped to do laundry in some crappy hotel laundry room. (For president?)
- 3. He has the sort of wealth that would ensure you NEVER NEED TO DO LAUNDRY AGAIN, and, sure, sometimes we take pride in doing chores, but he's ignored the whole point of being asshole-level wealthy, which is that HE CAN SPEND THE REST OF HIS LIFE DOING ANYTHING BUT LAUNDRY.
- 4. He thinks this makes you want to vote for him, instead of wanting to stuff money into his dumbass kid's mouth, hoist the kid like a battering ram, knock down his handlers, explode the door to his hotel room and just repeatedly head-butt his fake business-casual ass with his own fake spawn.
Romney doesn't get that the NORMAL and fun thing about his wealth is that it lets him exempt himself from the shitty chores his economic policy forces on everybody else. Nobody likes Mitt Romney because he's "like them." They like the idea of not being them. His sole appeal is the absence of hardship he represents—irrespective of the dead thing it comes wrapped in.
This is why his feints at being human are engrossing. Mitt Romney surely does basic human stuff all the time—burping, farting, apologizing to God for both—but he's been an unreal person for so long that unreality has overwhelmed whatever might have remained of a normal dude. And the process of messaging and observation has only piled a layer of self-conscious and studied artifice on trying to seem natural while selling an artifice. For instance, I'm pretty sure Mitt doesn't hesitate to personally refill his own ice bucket at a hotel, but I also think he stands at the peep hole and waits until a journalist walks by and THEN goes to get ice. Like he's at a Model UN tournament and "The Press" is the cute girl from a neighboring high school that he wants to "bump into" with his tie slightly unknotted and askew and his starched cuffs rolled up a little—totally vibing on "sexy after-work chic." Hey, I was just walking here. I'm Mitt. Wow, it's really lucky we ran into each other. Ahaha. Say, is Heaven missing an angel, because I would love for your ability to get healthcare to be a states' rights issue. Well, if you're gonna be a bitch, how about you self-deport from this conversation?
This is why today promises to give us something special. Obama will deliver some bit of canned history with a segue that's spurting-chest-wound levels of obvious. ("And it is those guarantees of life and liberty that inspired the equal protection we find in a society of laws. And speaking of protection, without that True Coat, you're gonna get oxidation that'll cost you a heckuva lot more than $500!") And with Romney, there's a chance we could see history's worst high-five. Seriously. Mitt could deliver a five more clumsily than two kids with inner-ear problems trying to execute one while standing up in a canoe.
There's so much to anticipate, I'm almost giddy with the possibilities. Off the top of my head, I am willing to GUARANTEE that the following things happen:
- Obama solemnly uncoils the world's longest hot dog while bystanders applaud.
- Romney calls Obama "a tory."
- An AP photographer snaps a quick pic through an open men's room door revealing Obama's shoes and pantlegs under a stall and—what's that?—that's a thumbs-up being flashed under the door!
- Romney says, "I'm reminded of my favorite joke from Bio-Dome."
- The animal trainer guy holds an eagle aloft before Obama, and it goes berserk, flapping its wings, but Obama looks really stoic, like he's having a psychic conversation with the eagle.
- Romney asks every American to fuck a 9/11 widow.
- Obama sees a warm apple pie and says, "That feels just like third base."
- Romney eats an entire flag.
- Obama kisses a bunch of anchor babies.
This could be some next-level shit, here. It can happen, and it should happen. Let us enjoy it. Let this be our present to ourselves.
Happy birthday, America.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.