Shuddering, lurching and stumbling, the 2008 general election has finally, mercifully begun. For a year and a half, U.S. voters have been flogged like a prison gang through the nine circles of media hell. The two dazed survivors of the primary process, John McCain and Barack Obama, are now warily circling each other, looking for an opening even as they try to shed the already hardened public perception of their character and motivation.
For disaffected Republicans as well as many Democrats like me, McCain is an irascible grandstander of slippery ideology who has made a career out of flattering and courting the media. It remains debatable whether McCain's traumatic experiences as a prisoner of war have enhanced or distorted his admittedly wide-ranging knowledge of military and security matters. Crystal clear, however, is McCain's startling awkwardness as a public speaker. With stilted, stodgy intonations that seem to descend from the late-19th century era of one-room schoolhouses, McCain laboriously reading a speech is a painful spectacle. After the mumbling, disjointed George W. Bush, doesn't the U.S. deserve a more sophisticated leader on the international stage?
Meanwhile, conservative talk radio, which I have been following with interest for almost 20 years, has become a tornado alley of hallucinatory holograms of Obama. He's a Marxist! A radical leftist! A hater of America! He's "not that bright"; he can't talk without a teleprompter. He knows nothing and has done less. His wife is a raging mass of anti-white racism. It's gotten to the point that I can hardly listen to my favorite shows, which were once both informative and entertaining. The hackneyed repetition is numbing and tedious, and the overt character assassination is ethically indefensible. Talk radio will lose its broad audience if it continues on this nakedly partisan path.
As an Obama supporter, I of course see things quite differently. Whatever his tactical assertions in the primary trenches, Obama seems to have an open and flexible mind. He is a conciliator and synthesizer, ready to give due respect to opposing views -- a grace desperately needed in paralyzed Washington. When the camera comes close -- as it did last week when CNN's terrific Candy Crowley tenaciously grilled him about Hillary Clinton's prospects for the vice-presidency -- his deliberative thought process is plainly visible. What a deft performance under high-stakes pressure: Obama was firm, authoritative and methodical without ever losing his warmth and geniality. The guy is smart as a whip. And his administration will be as good as its appointments. As for Michelle Obama, she is formidable, representing a bold, stylish feminism more authentically contemporary than the old, bellyaching, blame-the-males style of Hillary's omnipresent cheerleader, Gloria Steinem.
Given the looming importance of national security concerns, I used to think that Virginia's pugnacious junior senator, Jim Webb, an ex-Marine, would be Obama's most prudent running mate. Obama doesn't need some veteran pol like the 66-year-old governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, who would simply make Obama look younger than he is. Arizona's ebullient Governor Janet Napolitano would certainly fill out my Italian-American dream ticket and help to nail down the Southwest. But I've come to feel that Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius is Obama's best bet. She is a polished public presence who epitomizes that cordial, smoothly reassuring, and blandly generic WASPiness that has persistently defined the American power structure in business and government and that has weirdly resisted wave after wave of immigration since the mid-19th century. An Obama-Sebelius pairing would be visually vibrant and radiant, like a new day dawning.
Hillary for veep? Are you mad? What party nominee worth his salt would chain himself to a traveling circus like the Bill and Hillary Show? If the sulky bearded lady wasn't biting the new president’s leg, the oafish carnival barker would be sending in the clowns to lure all the young ladies into back-of-the-tent sword-swallowing. It would be a seamy orgy of scheming and screwing. Hillary could never be content with second place. But neither could an alpha male like Obama. The vice-president should be an accomplished but subordinate personality. An Obama-Hillary ticket might tickle party regulars, but it would be a big fat minus in the general election. Republicans have shrewdly stockpiled a mammoth arsenal of past scandals to strafe Hillary with. Only a sentimental masochist would want to relive the tawdry 1990s.
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised at the ecstatic media lockstep praising Hillary's so-called concession speech last weekend. This is the same herd of sheep who bleated to Bush's beat and brought us the Iraq fiasco. I first heard the speech on the radio as I was driving back to Philadelphia from a family event in upstate New York. I was shocked and appalled at Hillary's inflammatory demagoguery, which was obviously intended to keep her candidacy alive through the August convention and beyond. The echo in the museum's marble entry hall gave the event an eerily retro quality, as if it were a 1930s fascist rally. Hillary's turgid, preachy rhythms were condescending and manipulative, and her climaxes were ear-splittingly strident. It was pure Evita, a cult of personality masquerading as populism. When I later saw the speech on TV, I was disgusted by how Hillary undercut her insultingly brief endorsement of Obama with a flat expression and cold, dead eyes. The only thing that got her blood racing was the blatantly stoked hysteria of her screeching worshipers.
Hillary's desperate end-game gambit to turn the whole election into a referendum on gender does feminism a serious disservice. It wasn't sexism that cost Hillary the nomination: It was her own misjudgments and mismanagement of a campaign that had the massive support of the nationwide party establishment, constructed by her husband -- to whom she owes her entire career, which has thus far been dismayingly free of any significant, concrete achievement. What kind of feminism is this -- all smiley show and no substance? Hillary's latest pose as tribune of the people is contradicted by her snobbish history of catering to the rich and famous as well as her indifference to the legions of small vendors whom her extravagant campaign has stiffed. And no true feminist would tolerate or enable that decades-long pattern of brazen philandering and crude sexual harassment that will forever brand the Clinton chronicles. When will our paleo-feminist dead-enders wake up to the psychological reality that compulsive seducers are misogynists?
Hillary's authentic contribution to feminism is to have demonstrated for the first time that a woman can win state primaries -- even if she needed her husband's help as well as racially divisive tactics to do so. This welcome development will surely encourage big donors to support future presidential campaigns by women, who (like Elizabeth Dole) were previously forced to drop out early for lack of funding. Obama's meteoric success will also benefit female candidates, who can hope to break out of the pack as suddenly as he did. Past predictors of electoral success have been exploded, and all bets are off.
Speaking of the pack, where the hell were the women in this last one? It's outrageous that none of our other experienced female Democrats had a fire in the belly for the presidency -- or the guts to challenge Hillary. Look at Dennis Kucinich, whose electoral chances were always slim but who stuck to his guns and endured mockery and belittlement far more widespread and routine than anything suffered by Hillary. The public arena is by definition savage and gladiatorial. Women aspiring to high office have to buck up and accept the ritual abuse and taunting that men have playfully used on one another since childhood. The list of allegedly lethal sexist comments flung at Hillary is small indeed -- a few tasteless asides by immature talk-show buffoons. Big deal! As for the "Iron my shirt" hoax (a video of which was posted in my last column), anyone who falls for that minor stunt is naive indeed. But paleo-feminists en masse have seized that tale and are waving it around like Veronica's veil. This kind of mushy gullibility makes one cringe for one's gender.
In point of fact, Hillary's sex helped her more than hurt her. What the media repeatedly claimed was her success in debate was predicated on her silencing of her male competitors, who were bullied into excess caution in dealing with a woman. Not one Democratic male dared attack or rebut her with the zest shown by all the Republican candidates jousting with each other. Hillary had to be coddled with elaborate deference -- or the delicate little woman would squawk bloody murder (as she did when she petulantly complained about always being given the first debate question). All of this rubbish was resurrected last week in the thousand mawkish excuses found by the media and her crooning acolytes for "giving her time" to withdraw from the race. No man would have been treated in that overconcerned way -- as a frail vessel of quivering emotion. Yet another blot on feminism, courtesy of Clinton, Inc.
And here’s another whopping female advantage: Hillary could jet around the country with an elaborate, color-keyed wardrobe and a professional hair and makeup crew, who plastered and insta-lifted her with dewy salon uber-ointments and cutting-edge technology before every appearance. No male candidate has ever had that theatrical privilege. (John Edwards, in contrast, was heaped with scorn for his simple yet pricey haircuts.) When the mega-prep for some reason failed -- as on a frigid morning in Iowa -- the resultant photo of Hillary in realistically wrinkled 60-year-old mode caused repercussions around the world. Golda Meir, with her robustly lived-in face and matriarchal jowls, would have given ever-primping Hollywood Hillary a derisive Bronx cheer.
There can be no doubt that Hillary's travails have reignited the feminist wars, which sputtered out in the mid-'90s after the rousing triumph of the insurgent pro-sex wing of feminism to which I belong. Grab your swords and saddle up, ladies! The spectral Steinem is clinging to Hillary like a limpet. Oh, and there's Susan Faludi wispily brooding in Steinem's papoose. Get ready to rumble: Male-bashing feminism is back with a vengeance.
My latest salvo, which opens with Hillary, will be published in two weeks by Arion: "Feminism Past and Present: Ideology, Action, and Reform," which was the keynote address of a conference called "The Legacy and Future of Feminism," held at Harvard University in April. The article may be available on Arion's Web site by late next week.
On the culture front, I was in Brazil two weeks ago for my first visit to the gorgeous and historic capital city of Salvador in Bahia, which I adored. (Don't get me started on the fabulous food, with its African and Amerindian roots.) I gave a public lecture at the Teatro Castro Alves in the Frontiers of Thought series, sponsored by Copesul Braskem: "Varieties of the Erotic in 20th Century Art."
In the green room afterward, as my mind was still lit up with the 61 images I had shown (from Gustav Klimt and Pablo Picasso through Cindy Sherman and Robert Mapplethorpe), a press agent arrived with a gift from one of Salvador's most famous residents, the Brazilian superstar Daniela Mercury -- five of her DVDs tied up with a red ribbon. Sensory overload! With the precious DVDs cradled in my carry-on, I flew back to the U.S. on a magic carpet of Mercury reverie. I'm not kidding: Here's the magnetically molten cover photo from "Classica."
Since my return, I have plumbed the riches of the Web to research the Mercury phenomenon (her real name: Her mother's maiden name was Mercuri). I've had a ball on YouTube, which is lavishly stocked with her videos, TV interviews and candid fan encounters. Daniela, now 42, has been called Brazil's Madonna, but her work as a singer and dancer is far broader and more eclectic than Madonna's. Her folkloric aesthetic was shaped by Salvador's colossal Carnival celebration, where the entire city turns out to sing and dance around huge amplified trucks (trio élétricos). A typical performance on the elevated platforms can last seven hours straight. (Here's Daniela in full carnival drag getting charmingly teary on the catwalk before singing "Swing Da Cor" to the vast crowd below.)
Though her professional career began in nightclubs, Daniela achieved stardom in the 1990s as "Queen of Axé," a Salvador-based Afro-Brazilian fusion pop sometimes called samba-reggae. Her extensive repertoire ranges from torch songs to Portuguese rap. Through it all runs her attunement to deep emotion as well as her fascination with the infinitely complex rhythms of Africanized Bahia. Her stated master principle is "alegria" (joy), which she calls the essence of life and which she visibly transmits to her surging sea of fans.
Watching Daniela Mercury in action, I realized just how bored and disillusioned I have become by American popular entertainment over the past 15 years, when Madonna went corporate and lost her grip on the zeitgeist. All that passionate, improvisational, open-air vitality has been going on in Brazil while American music fans have been trapped like doped steers in the commercial stockyard of overpriced, overpackaged arena concerts, where performers trot out canned patter in between the computerized special-effects lighting. Low-budget "alternative" musicians are just as programmatic, with their rote political bromides or their dated affectations of urban irony.
I heartily recommend Daniela Mercury's DVD, "Eletrodoméstico," to every aspiring young performer or to anyone who longs to see the performing arts in magnificent full flower. (That bewitching cover image gives a taste of Daniela's staggering variety of swirling, cutaway leather costumes, intricate jewelry and raffish gaucho armbands.) "Eletrodoméstico" is a marathon, high-octane 2003 performance for Brazilian MTV where Daniela tirelessly sings and dances through 25 songs. (Here she is performing and rapping the sensational title song at a jazz festival in Montreal.) There are also several spirited song-and-dance duets with guest stars. One can't imagine Madonna graciously sharing the stage with anyone (as Judy Garland did with the young Barbra Streisand, for example, when the variety-show format was still thriving in the U.S.).
Similarly, one can't imagine Daniela, with her relaxed, fluid body language and sleek, golden silhouette, cultivating the grotesquely sinewy arms and sallow, claw-like hands that have to be minutely erased from workaholic Madonna's magazine photos. Stressed-out, wired, over-conceptualized Anglo-American womanhood, currently on display in the hit film of "Sex and the City," is causing cultural dyspepsia. Is it any wonder that so many interesting, talented young men are reluctant to marry or have turned gay in droves? Exactly what do young professional women have to offer these days, aside from hyper office talk over a business lunch?
Reconnection to nature would obviously be easier in lushly tropical Bahia than in the stony grid of Manhattan. But this is where art comes in -- the medium of expanded imagination, which dissolves time and space. Full circle to feminism: Sexism, where it exists, is a political barrier that must be removed. But life is an organic principle and a cosmic skyscape, far vaster and more eternal than politics.
Camille Paglia's column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.