They don't get much cooler; Why Obama is the perfect McLuhan proxy
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 18 March 2008)

Marshall McLuhan would have loved Barack Obama -- not as a political leader, necessarily, but as a public figure who provides proof of a favourite McLuhan theory and a reason to develop it further. Like no other 21st-century politician, Obama fits neatly into the thinking expressed in books like Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy.

McLuhan, who died in 1980 after a career as the world's most eminent commentator on mass media, would have savoured every detail of the Obama campaign against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. And in the absence of the master himself you can be sure that every McLuhan reader will see the primaries through his eyes.

He divided players in the public arena into two categories, hot and cool. Hot personalities are single-minded, obsessive, devoted to their policies. They have hard-edged, sharply defined public styles. Those characteristics, McLuhan argued, make them wrong for TV, which favours the cool.

TV flatters a personal style that's open-ended, loose, unpredictable, perhaps slightly inscrutable -- like Obama. Television makes people want to participate, so the wise politician avoids excessive detail and leaves blank spaces for viewers to fill in. Pierre Trudeau, who always retained a certain mystery and was elected by a country that had no idea what he believed, was the ideal McLuhanesque politician, though he might have occasionally gone too far.

McLuhan freely offered advice to his friend Trudeau. The last time was in 1979, when he was briefly opposition leader. After he appeared in Parliament wearing a beard, McLuhan wrote to say it "cooled your image many degrees!" It made Trudeau more mysterious and surprising. But McLuhan suggested that this might not be what Trudeau needed at that particular moment. For whatever reason, Trudeau shaved off the beard.

In the current American campaign there's no doubt where McLuhan would put Hillary Clinton: In his terms she's hot, much too hot. She puts people off by her certainty and her insistence on experience. Her body language screams stiffness, defensiveness, emotional coldness. She fills all the space with data and shuts out the audience. Even her language ("traditional Democratic value") seems old-fashioned. When she appears with Obama, she looks out of place. (She's better on the political blogs because bloggers are usually wonks who love policy details. Obama doesn't do as well among them as he does on TV.)

McLuhan said, "Politics offers yesterday's answers to today's questions." That's more or less the basis of Obama's campaign. He knows politicians bore and exasperate voters and that he needs to separate himself from standard politicians and their irksome bickering. Clinton seems to think voters are unreasonable if they react with annoyance to her intelligent, well-intentioned platform. Perhaps they are unfair but that's not Obama's problem.

His self-chosen job is to project a public persona that people can enthusiastically embrace -- as opposed to the grudging, limited acceptance Clinton's supporters give her. If a crack appears in his operation he jumps to fill it, as when he swiftly uncoupled from his campaign the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, a loudmouthed bigot and an embarrassment.

Obama's health plan differs somewhat from Clinton's but who cares? If and when Americans enact universal health care it will be a compromise that probably won't look much like Clinton's or Obama's. Unimpressed by policy, voters tend to like Obama for the way he presents himself, not because he claims to have a detailed plan to solve all their problems. They want to feel comfortable with him, and they do, apparently because he feels comfortable with them.

Why does that matter? McLuhan informed us in 1962 that, "The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village." In a real village the people know each other well enough to be at ease with them. In an imaginary village, the one that TV creates, people look for the same feeling.

Obama also understands this. He's a performer. It's interesting that his game is basketball because he reminds me of one other famous man, Michael Jordan. In particular I think of the off-court Jordan I once saw eating brunch in the Studio Cafe at the Four Seasons in Toronto. Jordan moved with such easy grace that he seemed to float into the restaurant. In town with the Chicago Bulls to play the Raptors, he looked like the most confident person in that room, not to mention the best dressed. Like Obama, he appeared unassertive. He didn't need to remind anyone he was the best basketball player on the planet. In much the same way, Obama doesn't seem to care whether we're impressed by every word he says. He's criticized for vagueness but vagueness is essential to his style.

On the evening of Sept. 23, 1976, president Gerald Ford and his Democratic challenger in the presidential election, governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia, were in the last stage of a debate, broadcast live from Philadelphia. Carter said, "one of the very serious things that's happened in our government in recent years and has continued up until now is a breakdown in the trust among our people in the-- "

And at that point a transformer blew and the microphones of both candidates died.

It took technicians 27 minutes to revive the equipment and in all that time neither candidate spoke or moved an inch. They stood rigid on the stage, like wax dummies at Madame Tussaud's. "I watched that tape afterwards," Carter said later, "and it was embarrassing that both president Ford and I stood there almost like robots."

The next morning McLuhan was on NBC with Tom Brokaw to analyze the debate. He claimed the breakdown was easily the most exciting part of the evening. It provided some surprise and some drama and above all gave the audience a feeling of participation, even if all they did was wait for the restoration of power and speculate about what caused the breakdown. It gave viewers space around the candidates that they could fill as they wished.

How right McLuhan was. Of the 1976 campaign I can recall only two things, Ford's most famous blunder (he said the Soviets did not control Poland) and those 27 minutes when all the networks broadcast nothing but reporters desperately filling time to accompany pictures of a stage that emitted nothing but eerie silence.

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