I’ve told this story before, or, at least part of it. It was 2004, and I was in San Francisco, staying near the Presidio – a park and former military base – in a house that was actually a decommissioned embassy. It was rented at the time by a nice man in the music business and his partner, quite the sweetest dominatrix I’ve ever met. They were personal friends of a close friend and colleague of mine at the time, a Bay Area artist. She’d arranged for me to stay with them during a couple of weeks I was spending on the West Coast. I got a tour of the building, including its several basement levels: “If you wander down here and see a trail of blood on the floor, don’t worry. We have a musician drinking himself to death down here somewhere.”
It was November 2004. There was a big party at the house for election night. I was amazed at how much energy everyone seemed to have for it. At the time, I thought I was nursing a terminal week-long hangover, having spent Halloween in the Castro and at a nightclub that’d given me about a thousand free-drink tickets. It turned out I was slowly coming down with The Worst Man-Flu Of All Time. My point being, people thought that maybe my lack of enthusiasm was owing to a mix of General Non-Specific Shitty Feeling and my well-known Vile British Cynicism. (Which is bullshit. I’m not cynical at all. Just realistic. But anyway.)
My friend had spent the last week waving her tattooed arms in the air and yelling “John Kerry! It’s gonna be a sweep! SWEEP!” I’d watched pollster John Zogby say exactly the same thing to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show the previous night. I had, in fact, sat there, enduring the glee in the room this caused, and wondered how anyone gave this person money to predict anything more challenging than whether the sun was going to come up or not.
John Kerry, for our younger readers, was a politician who strongly resembled a reanimated Boris Karloff in a badger-pelt wig. He was a distant, charmless waffler who blew every political point he tried to score in the debates by either garbling the headline or shovelling on so much detail that people lost track of what he was trying to say. President Bush, in contrast, rolled up as the smiling ranch boss who weren’t too big to have a laugh an’ a joke with the hands, and whipped the shit out of his opponent on the floor.
The room was actually more excited by a Senator from Chicago who had a speech excerpt broadcast just as the polls closed. This was my first exposure to a dynamic orator called Barack Obama. More than one of the assembled group (which was mostly artists and sex workers, as I dimly recall) said that they’d rather Obama was running for President. John Kerry’s appeal centered largely on the fact that he wasn’t George W Bush. Which was nonsense in many respects. These were both American Patricians, who had even belonged to the same secret society at university. They were facing each other not because of any deep-seated critical political commitment, just a certain conviction that the world is run by people like them and so they were entitled to the Presidency.
You know how that story ended, of course. John Kerry got buried, and George W Bush continued to bestride the world with that weird knuckle-swinging, faux-alpha-monkey gait of his. Four years later Barack Obama ran against John McCain, a man with the appearance and integrity of an old Muppet that had been left in a dumpster for ten years, and dazzled observers with the energy and intelligence of his narrative.
Please understand that US Presidential politics is one of my favourite spectator sports, but also that I believe that American politics affects the world and so should be paid attention to. And this isn’t the same as “right-wing American President bad”. From my vantage, all American Presidents are to the right of centre, and even one who is supposedly left of the American centre, like President Obama, commits geopolitical acts that are to me just as questionable as the acts of George W Bush.
By the end of his presidency, Bush was visibly tired, and said in an interview that he was really ready to not be President any more. He was one of the least popular Presidents in American history, the Tea Party (launched in part by his signature of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008) had begun to corrode the GOP, and he was eager to go away and live quietly.
The first of the 2012 Presidential debates aired a little under a week ago, as you read this. I was unpleasantly surprised by what I saw. The dynamic orator was gone. In his place was a distant, charmless waffler who blew every political point he tried to score by sounding either confused or incredibly boring. And he also looked tired. While the boss at the other lectern laughed and lied and outright told the debate moderator he was fired when the boss got to trade up to the White House… President Obama looked like a man who was really ready to not be President any more.
I found this sad for many reasons, not least of which is that, this time round, there are significant differences between the two candidates. Not as many as I might like, perhaps, but you can draw a defining line between someone who believes government has a role in people’s lives and an asset-stripper who’ll sell the pavement from under your feet to turn a couple of bucks.
I found myself wondering what could have made both Obama and Bush look so similar, so tired and strained. I mean, the Presidency is hardly an easy job, but there was an eerie resonance there. Tonight, I’m thinking this. Bush was famously not a man of imagination. Obama is famously a man who worked hard to do good works.
But it is the job of a modern American President to leave a trail of blood in the basement. And a man of no imagination, or a man with a head full of high-flying rhetoric, is perhaps not best equipped for shouldering the weight of killing for a living.
Follow Warren on Twitter: @warrenellis
Image by Marta Parszeniew