Friday, May 15, 2009

 

O's Moment In The "Sun"

It's not about me. It's about you.

That may be the final lesson that President Obama gave Arizona State University graduates at their commencement address Wednesday night. The ASU administration created a national controversy several weeks ago when it announced that the president -- unlike, it seemed, almost all other invited commencement speakers -- would not receive an honorary degree from the institution. What seemed most galling was the language the school used:

University spokeswoman Sharon Keeler said Tuesday that the University awards honorary degrees to recognize individuals for their work and accomplishments spanning their lifetime.

“Because President Obama’s body of work is yet to come, it’s inappropriate to recognize him at this time,” Keeler said.

You can make it to the White House, but apparently that doesn't mean a whole lot in the big picture. There's still work to do! Now, this particular writer happens to be a Republican, but ASU made a serious faux pas. Even if -- as embarrassed university officials said later -- that it no longer gives honorary degrees to sitting politicians, it's probably a good idea to make an exception for the president of the United States, ideology aside.

The commander in chief is probably the biggest "get" that any graduating class could ask for. He doesn't have to go, but it ends up being a major thrill for the seniors -- plus parents, alumni, boosters and other possible fundraisers. Forget about political party, it's a big thing. Instead, ASU made this more about themselves than about their own students.

Bad form.

But give the president credit. He got the last laugh Wednesday -- and not in the White House Correspondents Dinner laughing sense. He dispensed with the controversy with an early joke: He promised not to pick against the ASU Sun Devils in the NCAA while "threatening" the university administration with an IRS audit.

He then followed a classic bit of advice to rhetorical effect: If life gives you lemons, turn it into lemonade. He took the phrase ASU offered as an excuse not to give him an honorary degree and used it as the foundation for a rather powerful exhortation.

He states that, like the president standing before them, "Your body of work is yet to come." He then uses that phrase as both a foundation and home signal for a speech on the importance of perseverance in the face of challenge:

That's a good motto for all of us -- find someone to be successful for. Rise to their hopes and their needs. As you think about life after graduation, as you look in the mirror tonight, you may see somebody with no idea what to do with their life. But a troubled child might look at you and see a mentor. A homebound senior citizen might see a lifeline. The folks at your local homeless shelter might see a friend. None of them care how much money is in your bank account, or whether you're important at work, or famous around town -- they just know that you're someone who cares, someone who makes a difference in their lives.

That is what building a body of work is all about -- it's about the daily labor, the many individual acts, the choices large and small that add up to a lasting legacy. It's about not being satisfied with the latest achievement, the latest gold star -- because one thing I know about a body of work is that it's never finished. It's cumulative; it deepens and expands with each day that you give your best, and give back, and contribute to the life of this nation. You may have set-backs, and you may have failures, but you're not done - not by a long shot.

He eventually uses the term seven times throughout the address, finally concluding:

I know starting your careers in troubled times is a challenge. But it is also a privilege.

Because it is moments like these that force us to try harder, to dig deeper, to discover gifts we never knew we had -- to find the greatness that lies within each of us. So don't ever shy away from that endeavor. Don't ever stop adding to your body of work. I can promise that you will be the better for that continued effort, as will this nation that we all love.

One of the classic Greek aphorisms is, "Count no man happy until he's dead." Everything until the final moments of an individual's life is open for further shaping, constructing and improving. Everything, as Obama says, adds to "the body of work."

Nearly all commencement addresses have similar structures and rhetoric. That's no surprise, of course. After all, they are used to commemorate a specific passage of life. Therefore, the only way to make an address special is for the speaker to identify something unique about this particular school or this particular time. ASU's administration gave President Obama a gift. He took it, ran with it and passed it on. In so doing, he gave the ASU graduating class of 2009 something that they can truly use -- words to live by, not just for a day or a week, but for a lifetime.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

 

(P)Syke(s)!

Kathleen Parker basically hits the nail on the head on the pseudo-controversy involving comic Wanda Sykes at the White House Correspondents Dinner last weekend:

There's nothing un-funnier than Saturday night's jokes reviewed by the caffeinated light of Monday morning.

Which is why we probably shouldn't quarterback a comedian over coffee when she was performing for a crowd primed on cocktails.

Exactly.

Parker is also pretty spot on in explaining why Sykes' stuff on Rush Limbaugh wasn't funny (whereas the president's -- "Sorry, RNC, Rush Limbaugh does not qualify as a troubled asset." -- was).

Sykes' Limbaugh joke was not funny for the reason she cites -- plus the fact that it was too complicated. For a political joke you want a sentence or two of set-up and then -- BAM! -- a punch line. Trying to thread together "hoping Obama fails" to "country failing" to "treason" to "20th hijacker" is just too complicated -- even in a room of political junkies.

I do disagree with Parker in one respect -- that "No one's drug addiction is amusing." Au contraire! One's own addiction isn't funny -- someone else's is. Well, at least a few degrees of separation away. Addiction of a close family member absolutely sucks. But, sorry, addiction problems of the wealthy or otherwise high-and-mighty can be a source of much humor.

Keith Richards' blood transfusions. Any member of the Kennedys. Britney Spears. It's not nice, but it is part of the human condition: We are wired to experience schaedenfreude of the misfortunes of those who are materially or status-wise "better" than us -- yet who nonetheless fall prey to various temptations.

Mocking celebrity addiction is a humor stock-in-trade going back to Aristophanes when royalty were the only "celebrities" to make fun of.

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Trump Towers Over All

From real estate magnate and best-selling self-help business-writer in the '80s to real-estate magnate and reality series star in the Oh-Ohs, Donald Trump has refused to recognize the expiration date on his 15-Minutes-of-Fame milk carton. Even a pretty mediocre second edition of "Celebrity Apprentice" couldn't quite eclipse The Donald's personal incandescence.

And, as it has in his past, his talent for picking the ladies managed to enhance his own profile. Sunday's "Apprentice" finale came down to 75-year old potty-mouthed QVC jewelry-hawker Joan Rivers and 40-something professional poker player Annie Duke. Last year, in the first "CA," Trump selected British reality icon Piers Morgan over country-singer Trace Adkins -- primarily because of Morgan's superior money-raising skill on the charity-supporting show.

This year, Duke was the clear front-runner in terms of money raised, but Trump selected Rivers based on other less-quantifiable criteria -- including that she brought the most "energy" to the show. Part of that energy was trashing Duke at every opportunity -- including famously calling her "worse than Hitler." But, Trump's instincts were probably correct. While Duke was ruthless in effectively playing the game, Rivers is/was by far the more self-promoting/attention-drawing person; she can be counted on to promote her winning the show, thus promoting Trump in the process. Duke would take her charity's winnings, go home and be barely heard from again, except within her own poker-playing community.

But ever on the lookout for the self-promoters -- even the relatively amateurish -- Trump then spun around to determine, Solomon-like, the fate of the controversial Miss California USA, Carrie Prejean. Her guileless honesty in answering a question on gay marriage probably cost her the Miss USA title three weeks ago. And youthful foolishness with regard to topless photos imperiled her keeping her Miss California crown. Trump bought the Miss USA pageant a few years ago, so he had the ultimate power to determine what should happen to Prejean -- suddenly thrust in the middle of the culture wars because of her belief in "opposite marriage" and getting trashed by pageant judge Perez Hilton.

Conservatives were positive that the organizers of the California pageant -- embarrassed over her views -- wanted to strip her of her crown. In fact, the Vanessa Williams incident a quarter century ago showed there is a precedent for a beauty queen losing her crown because of racy photos.

But Trump the wise overseer, tore through the cant on both sides. The Donald didn't give Prejean a "You're fired!" moment. Instead, he reminded everyone that she had the same views on gay marriage as, well, Barack Obama -- and, hey, kids, the president is cool! He dismissed the topless pics with a casual, "we are in the 21st century." In so doing, he put both the PC left and the faux-prudish pageant organizers in their place and, probably for the first time, Donald Trump became a mild hero to the religious right (who have adopted Carrie Prejean as something of a spokeswoman). Only in America could the thrice-married Trump become an odd defender of traditional marriage!

And why wouldn't Trump keep Prejean? Like Rivers, she has managed to create controversy and energy around a Trump product. She has gotten more ink and Google hits than the actual winner of Miss USA, who was Miss South Carolina, no, North Carolina...um, whats-her-name! Whatever. But Prejean's the real thing -- beautiful woman...controversial views...topless pictures...Yeah, Trump this, baby! No way is she going to be kicked to the curb!

That this is the fourth (or fifth) controversy involving a Miss USA contestant since Trump took the franchise over is, of course, just a coincidence.

After all these years, it's still good to be The Donald.

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Maybe It Does Matter If You're Black or White (African)

Some 20 years ago, a white roommate once asked me -- half-joking: "If an Afrikaner South African moved to the United States and became a citizen, would he and his offspring be considered 'African American'?" I said, I guess so -- also in a somewhat semi-serious/semi-not manner.

It's no laughing matter these days.

Paulo Serodio, a Mozambique-born student at a New Jersey medical school is suing the institution for permitting serial harassment to occur after he responded to a question about cultural heritage by identifying himself as "white African-American."

Now, I certainly want to hear the school's response: On the face f it, the case brings together two awful trends in contemporary American society -- academic PC run amok, on the one side vs. personal aggrievement-sparked litigation on the other.

But based on the facts as put forward by the plaintiff, he seems to have a pretty good case. Assuming that there wasn't any overt, intentional, harassment of other students by Paulo Serodio, it appears to me that the university's administration reacted awfully to this situation. It doesn't surprise me that students would be offended by a white person describing themselves as "African American." But that's why instructors are supposed to be able to recognize teachable moments and get a real conversation going.

Of course, as noted above, this sort of thing could have been foreseen decades ago -- as soon as the term "African American" came to be more popularized, replacing "black" in many instances. As soon as the current American descendants of African slaves chose to use geographic location as shorthand for ethnic identification (as opposed to the older, more clinical, descriptors -- Caucasian, Negro, Asian, etc), such problems were bound to crop up in a much closer global village. There are millions of first-generation dark-skinned Africans living throughout Europe and the United States. Are such people "French/German/Italian/etc" or are they "French-African" (counting the ones born in France), "German-African," etc.?

In the U.S., is an Ethiopian New York City cab river who gets his citizenship an "African-American" in the same way that a kid who grew up in the South Bronx his entire life? Of course not, yet they both can be referred to in the same way. Society -- and census documents -- tell me that my ethnicity is "African-American" -- even as I embrace my status as a natural born Trinidadian-American ( raised on the right).

This New Jersey case may turn out to be nothing; Serodio may have overstated the criticism he got. However, one never knows the full twist and turns of once the lawyers are involved. A settlement may go well beyond whatever monetary compensation the litigant seeks. It may help shine some useful light on a diverse, yet still racially obsessed society.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

 

Obama Stands Up

The president's White House Correspondents Dinner stand-up routine is here. He was very good -- one of the better political comedic performances I've seen.  (Wanda Sykes' otherwise good performance was marred by a tasteless joke near the end about Rush Limbaugh's kidneys failing.  Sykes is a good enough comic to know that wishing someone dead just isn't funny.  Jokes about Limbaugh's Oxycontin addiction, now that is fair game -- and any conservatives upset about that need to get over it.) 

One thing I've noticed about Obama is that he (or his joke-writers) have a rather ironic idea of what "self-deprecating" humor is. For this president, the self-deprecation is in recognizing how, uh, awesome the Obama White House. For example:  "During the second 100 days, we will design, build and open a library dedicated to my first 100 days." He followed that up with, "I believe that my next 100 days will be so successful, I will be able to complete them in 72 days -- and on the 73rd day I will rest."  

This isn't the first time that Obama has used a joke to allude to himself (or his administration) in Biblical terms. Again, from the Al Smith dinner



Even though it does no real good to overanalyze humor (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar), Obama's approach does confirm something I've noted before about
Obama Era comedy:  Boomer presidents Clinton and Bush allowed themselves to become the punchlines for all sorts of jokes: Clinton helped feed the lady-lovin' Bubba rogue image by making jokes about putting astroturf in his pick-up; Bush joked about being a C-student.  The media (and late-night comics) followed those cues and treated the presidents accordingly. 

At the WHCD, Bush even went so far to do a filmed skit of himself walking around on his hands and knees looking for weapons of mass destruction; Clinton, of course, once did a routine based on Ken Starr's investigation.  It's early, but this administration doesn't play that way. The closest Obama got to a "dig" at himself was in the "three commerce secretaries" line.  Heck, even the biggest PR disaster -- the Air Force One Manhattan flyover -- was "blamed" on Sasha and Malia! 

This isn't an attack on the president's humor, but just an observation.  

The only criticism I might put down is a technical performance-related caveat:  This is the second time I've seen Obama do planned comedy; the first was at the Al Smith charity dinner in New York before the election: His timing is good with respect to the material (that was especially notable Saturday evening) when he used body-language to accent his "hip-hop lingo" joke about/with Michael Steele.  However, he has yet to master the talent of being so comfortable with the material that he doesn't look like he's seeing/reading it for the first time.  

The president has a "tell" where he ends up cracking himself up with his own jokes -- which you'll do if you're not as familiar with it as you should be.  Now, this doesn't mean that you shouldn't smile during stand-up.  Sure, definitely, but a deadpan "straight" delivery can often make a generally funny routine hilarious.  In fact, that's one reason why John McCain was much funnier than Obama at the aforementioned Al Smith dinner.

For what it's worth.  

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