Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Fun Won

June 10, 2009

Can The One Have Fun?


The fun police are patrolling Pennsylvania Avenue.

Given the serious times, the chatter goes, should Barack Obama be allowed to enjoy date night with Michelle in New York, sightseeing in Paris, golf outings in D.C., not to mention doing a promotion for Conan O’Brien and a video cameo for Stephen Colbert’s first comedy show from Iraq?

With two wars and G.M. in bankruptcy proceedings, shouldn’t the president be glued to the grindstone, emulating W.’s gravity when he sacrificed golf in 2003 as the Iraq insurgency spread?

“I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf,” the former president explained later. “I think, you know, playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.”

Actually, what sends the wrong signal is going to war with a phony justification, inadequate troop levels, insufficient armor, an inept Defense secretary and an inability to admit for years, deadly ones, that you needed counterinsurgency experts.

The right signal is Michelle and her daughters being charming ambassadors, “gobsmacking” the town, as a British tabloid put it, by scarfing down fish and chips at a London pub for £7.95 (about $13), like regular tourists.

As a taxpayer, I am most happy to contribute to domestic and international date nights. As Arthur Schlesinger noted in his diaries, the White House tends to drive its occupants nuts. So some respite from the pressure is clearly a healthy thing. Not as much respite as W. took, bicycling and vacationing through all the disasters that President Obama is now stuck fixing — spending a total of 490 days in the tumbleweed isolation of Crawford and rarely deigning to sightsee as he traveled the world.

Some White House officials fretted that the Obamas’ Marine One and Gulfstream magic-carpet ride to dinner in Greenwich Village and a play on Broadway was too showy. Others thought it helped show a softer side of the often dispassionate Obama.

Interestingly, Dr. No, Dick Cheney, declined to tut-tut with other Republicans, saying “I don’t know why not,” when he was asked about the propriety of the president’s getaway to Broadway. A far more mature response than Senator Chuck Grassley’s nit-twit tweets grumbling about the president urging progress on health care “while u sightseeing in Paris.”

I loved the “Pretty Woman” romance of the New York tableau, the president, who had not lived an entitled life where he could afford such lavish gestures, throwing off his tie and whisking his wife, in a flirty black cocktail dress, to sip martinis in Manhattan, as Sasha hung over a White House balcony and called out goodbye.

When the president and first lady walked to their seats in the Belasco for “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” the theater-goers went nuts. And why not?

What a relief to have an urbane, cultivated, curious president who’s out and about, engaged in the world. Not dangerously detached, as W. was, or darkly stewing like Cheney. Not hanging with the Rat Pack like J.F.K. or getting bored and up to mischief like Bill Clinton.

It was lame of critics on Capitol Hill to carp that the Obamas could have taken in a play in D.C. I’m a native, but it’s not the same. And it’s nice to see them tending to their marriage. According to Richard Wolffe in “Renegade,” his new book about the Obama campaign, it has taken effort to get the relationship this strong.

“She hated the failed race for Congress in 2000, and their marriage was strained by the time their youngest daughter, Sasha, was born a year later,” Wolffe writes. “There was little conversation and even less romance. She was angry at his selfishness and careerism; he thought she was cold and ungrateful. Even as he ran for the United States Senate in 2004, she still harbored very mixed feelings about her husband’s love of politics. ... So she had played no part in Barack’s previous contests and preferred to keep her distance.”

Wolffe limns what those of us who traveled with Obama could see: He was often grumpy on the campaign. He missed his family. He disdained what he saw as superficial, point-scoring conventions of politics, like debates and macho put-downs and public noshing. The Chicago smarty-pants was a Michael Jordan clutch player who grew bored if he was not challenged.

Being president, by contrast, suits him much better. He has not lapsed into his old ambivalence. He is intellectually engaged by sculpting history. The trellis of hideous problems is a challenge that lures him to be powerfully concentrated. And, as his aides say, he loves living above the family store.

Mixing play with intense work is not only a good mental health strategy; it’s a good way to show the world that American confidence and cool — and Cary Grant romantic flair — still thrive.

Date on and tee it up, Mr. President. It’s O.K. if they’re teed off.

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