Political events in the U.S. leave us at a loss. Daily, the common narrative is made a nonsense. As the whole world sees it, the narrative has unfolded as follows: After days and days of addled men pointing at maps on TV, using their arcane knowledge of historical voting trends in Maricopa County, Ariz., and the Montgomery suburb of Philadelphia, Joe Biden was declared the winner of the contest. It was over. We move on.
Then, it turns out, it’s not actually over until the guy in the White House, outgoing though he might be, says it’s over. The narrative now resembles a horror film that seems to end with the monster-fella killed off, but in the credits there’s a hint that he might be alive and lurking. What happens next? There’s a void in the narrative and it must be filled.
Well, cometh the hour, cometh the man: Barack Obama has been on U.S. TV more often in recent days than a Geico commercial. Morning, noon and night, he’s there, dispensing wisdom, rueful remarks, insight and self-deprecating humour. You could argue that he’s there to promote his new book, A Promised Land, and that would be true.
But only in a sense. In the heft of the narrative thrust, it’s equally true that a charismatic philosopher, the wise man, that classic literary figure, has appeared just in time to dole out sage advice and the understanding gained from experience. In storytelling, ancient and modern, the character of the wise man appears and then recedes so that the hero might establish his own presence and journey. Listen, have you not read your Northrop Frye? From Mentor in The Odyssey to Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, this is how great stories unfold.
They unfold as such because there’s nagging need for it. On Tuesday, Obama’s lengthy interview with Oprah Winfrey began streaming on AppleTV+, and AppleTV sent out more advance press releases and teasers than was seemly. This was, you see, an exciting, nay pivotal, event. It is certainly the most substantial of Obama’s TV appearances, this episode of The Oprah Conversation running longer than an hour.
It’s a fascinating chat, held virtually but technology making it seem the two are sitting by a fireside. Obama cracks jokes and asks Oprah what she’s been doing for fun. Oprah, being Oprah, thinks the question is about her and her taxing existence. She tells Obama about an eye infection that needed treatment and how she had a mammogram. Obama, with grace and wit, reminds her the question was about what she’d done for fun.
From there, the conservation is about the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, before Oprah gets into the meat of the book. Obama talks plainly and confidently about the return of “the competent, caring government we need and that the world expects.” His role, and he’s fully aware of it, is to normalize in advance the Biden/Harris administration. He’s careful to point out, based on experience, “the gap” between expectations placed on a president in the imagination of voters, and what can actually be accomplished. He’s every bit the wise man emerging at the crucial moment to share enlightenment and urge caution.
Watching him on these multiple TV appearances – he’s also on Jimmy Kimmel’s show on Thursday – you realize that you’ve forgotten his ease with the medium. He exhibits something only a few manage: completely confident, unruffled, relaxed and with nothing to hide. He’s quick with a smile or quip, but never unctuous. He’s a slight figure, slim and debonair in a suit but without a necktie. He looks serene with himself, and the body language – the easy, relaxed movement – suggests a man fleet of foot and swift of mind. He’s had it forever, that cool quality the TV camera adores. Now he’s all that, but older and wiser.
Much has been written about Donald Trump’s command of television. Now we see how overrated that ability was, and how it amounted to attitudes pilfered from the hyperbolic style of reality-TV.
Obama was on 60 Minutes recently and in a wide-ranging interview with Scott Pelley, he had a uniquely relaxed but accessible quality. His story about Michelle Obama’s utter dismay at his political ambitions had real resonance and made you think about the lack of the real in Trump’s reality-TV posturing. Obviously Obama’s appearance on 60 Minutes was booked months ago, but the timing was uncanny: Mere weeks before, we had witnessed Trump sulk and seethe as Lesley Stahl asked him fair questions, and then storm out.
Most narratives need stock characters and the wise old man is exactly that. Stock characters are reassuring to the audience and, by accident or design, Obama’s playing the role with aplomb. Mind you, in most storytelling, the wise older figure appears in order to offer guidance to a younger hero, and then fades away. Here, Joe Biden is older than Obama. But recent political events in the U.S. make nonsense of so many accepted narratives, don’t they?
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