Whatever happened to last year's breakout stars?
As Stanley McChrystal takes the long walk to the principal’s office, many commentators have suggested that the president shed his image as a cerebral waffler and bring the short, unhappy tenure of General McChrystal to an end. This would, according to some, show the kind of firm, decisive leadership often associated with Truman’s dispatch of MacArthur, or Bush’s impromptu remarks to the 9/11 cleanup crews at the site of the World Trade Center.
Let’s hope that Obama is not persuaded by such patently silly advice. It is an idée fixe of some political commentators that Obama should parlay every presidential dilemma into an opportunity to show “true leadership.” But judging Obama’s presidency by whether he’s displaying the right emotions (resolve, toughness, and anger, to name a few) gives an unintended and entirely superficial meaning to the phrase “presidential performance.”
John Kerry seemed to understand this yesterday when, in a futile attempt to douse the emerging firestorm, he said, “Everyone needs to take a deep breath and give the president and his national security team the space to decide what is in the best interest of our mission.”
That is, of course, an eminently sensible approach to the McChrystal flap. The idea that the president’s decision would be based on anything other than McChrystal’s ability to implement Obama’s Afghanistan strategy betrays near-Nixonian levels of political cynicism. Can anyone seriously suggest that the president dismiss the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in America’s longest-ever war, based on sassy comments in a magazine article, because the optics would be good?
Even if he were so inclined, any attempt by Obama to use McChrystal’s departure to burnish his leadership credentials would likely fall flat. One of the central themes of Obama’s tenure has been the return of the presidency to adult hands after many years of petulant and impulsive leadership. Obama has stuck with his restrained, sober, analytical governing style through the tumultuous 18 months of his presidency (even when various corporate villains have provided tempting opportunities for him to raise his voice and stomp his feet). This is, after all, the man who waited to enter the congressional healthcare debates, waited to take public ownership of the BP fiasco, and waited . . . and waited before ordering an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Does he really want to send the message that the one thing he can’t abide, the one thing he will not brook, is calling the vice-president “Senator Bite Me”?
And assume, contra this reasoning, that Obama’s firing of McChrystal were greeted as a rare display of political backbone. There’s little indication that the message would resonate beyond the chattering class. Nearly nine years in, the war in Afghanistan is barely the subject of notice, let alone the locus of intense popular attention. (It’s not for nothing that the most talked about Afghanistan article in recent months involved mineral deposits.) It hardly makes sense for Obama to make empty gestures to an empty crowd.
Worth noting, too, is the fact that any boost to Obama from McChrystal’s firing is likely to be short-lived. The war in Afghanistan is not, after all, a subject that lends itself to flashy displays of symbolism. People may applaud Obama’s decision now, but if past is prologue, the situation in Afghanistan will remain fragile and messy for years to come. If that’s the case, Obama’s decision to dump McChrystal only months into the troop surge will look less like strong, principled leadership than the type of rash, gut-level, Bush-43-style decision-making that so many have grown to despise.
None of this is to say, of course, that McChrystal’s remarks should not be condemned. They should be, as should the atmosphere of disrespect toward civilian leadership that flourished among his aides. But after the rain of rebukes from Republicans and Democrats alike, and the ignominy of McChrystal’s walk of shame to the White House this morning, there’s not much to be accomplished by further punishment.
The message of civilian superiority to military brass has been conveyed and, one would think, received. Obama can shout that message even more loudly with McChrystal’s termination, but is the marginal benefit worth the host of practical problems that would flow from his departure? Certainly not if the benefit is the vindication of some vague principle of military “respect” for civilian command. And especially not if the whole exercise is merely to engage in a pantomime of leadership.
We can be forgiven for having an occasional weakness for big, grand gestures like Bush’s speech at Ground Zero. But we shouldn’t forget that Obama’s Afghanistan problem is an attempt to close a military conflict that Bush eagerly anticipated in his chest-thumping speech at the World Trade Center site in 2001. It’s worth remembering that next time someone tells the president to pick up a bullhorn.
James Doty is a writer and lawyer living in New York. More James Doty.
The star of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” charmed practically everyone at the Oscars, where she was the youngest best actress nominee ever; she went on to film a remake of “Annie” opposite Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz.
Carly Rae Jepsen
Jepsen, who had 2012’s song of the summer with “Call Me Maybe,” released the fifth and final single from her debut album in January 2013. She toured the U.S. in mid-2013 -- just as Daft Punk and Robin Thicke battled to succeed her as icons of the summer.
Honey Boo Boo
2012’s biggest reality star, the young pageant contestant Alana Thompson, had a quieter time this year, with a second season whose ratings were strong but whose buzz was a bit muted. America was, by now, accustomed to young Thompson, and outraged or scandalized reactions were reserved for other TLC programming, like “The Man With the 132-Pound Scrotum.”
Ocean missed out on the top Grammys for which he was nominated in early 2013; he bounced back quickly with featured appearances on albums by Kanye West, Jay Z and Beyoncé, and is at work on a new album. Things are looking up!
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With their third album in 21 months hitting No. 1 immediately upon its fall 2013 release, the boy band that broke into America in 2012 would seem to be here to stay for a while. Still, they looked a bit nervous in their reaction shots during the Video Music Awards’ ‘N Sync reunion; maybe not this year, maybe not next, but eventually, the Justin of One Direction is going to break out. For now, though, things look good!
Lana Del Rey
The famously uncomfortable “Saturday Night Live” musical guest overcame endless mockery from 2012 to land her first top-10 hit in the summer of 2013 -- a remix of a year-old song, “Summertime Sadness.” As the co-writer of “Young and Beautiful,” the love theme from “The Great Gatsby,” Del Rey is such a front-runner for the best original song Oscar (last won by Adele) that there has been a direct-mail campaign to academy voters against her. The song was also played at the most romantic event of the year: Kanye West’s stadium marriage proposal to Kim Kardashian.
Wilson, who charmed fans of 2012’s “Pitch Perfect,” had a rockier 2013, with her sitcom “Super Fun Night” struggling creatively and in the ratings. Her next planned movies are both sequels, to “Kung Fu Panda” and -- hoping lightning will strike twice -- to “Pitch Perfect.”
Another 2012 music icon, Gotye won the record of the year trophy at the 2013 Grammys for “Somebody That I Used to Know.” He released no new singles in 2013, and has told the press he has been struggling to complete new material. Good luck, Gotye!
The golden boy of the 2012 Olympics, without feats of aquatic derring-do to distract the public this year, saw his always-tenuous persona completely shift from “amiable jock” into “utter dolt” with his E! reality series. Worst of all, the series was canceled.
In 2012, the young actress -- best known for her role in the indie “Winter’s Bone” and a supporting part in the “X-Men” franchise -- had marquee roles in the first “Hunger Games” film and in David O. Russell’s comedy “Silver Linings Playbook.” In 2013, she played to her strengths: After winning an Oscar, she starred in the second “Hunger Games” movie, on whose publicity tour she managed to charm everyone in America, and had another role in a David O. Russell comedy, “American Hustle,” for which she might just win ANOTHER Oscar. By 2014, she may end up running a major studio, or serving as president.
The breakout bikini model of 2012 made a repeat appearance on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue -- and got to do high-fashion spreads in Elle, Vogue and Vanity Fair. She was cast in a Cameron Diaz comedy, too. Some types of appeal are eternal!
E. L. James
The “50 Shades” novelist now gets to help share some input into a movie adaptation set for release in 2015. She probably never needs to work again! Isn’t that great? Isn’t that … just … great?
The “Gangnam Style” phenom performed at New Year’s 2013, but will spend New Year’s 2014 flipping channels to find his pistachio ad, his goofy antics having been outdone in the past year by “The Fox” singers Ylvis. Nothing meme can stay.