Heads should roll

President Obama's clumsy, smirky staff is sinking him -- and resurrecting a deflated GOP! Plus: Lay off Rush! And a Brazilian diva, up close and electric

Published March 11, 2009 10:37AM (EDT)

Free Barack!

Yes, free the president from his flacks, fixers and goons -- his posse of smirky smart alecks and provincial rubes, who were shrewd enough to beat the slow, pompous Clintons in the mano-a-mano primaries but who seem like dazed lost lambs in the brave new world of federal legislation and global statesmanship.

Heads should be rolling at the White House for the embarrassing series of flubs that have overshadowed President Obama's first seven weeks in office and given the scattered, demoralized Republicans a huge boost toward regrouping and resurrection. (Michelle, please use those fabulous toned arms to butt some heads!)

First it was that chaotic pig rut of a stimulus package, which let House Democrats throw a thousand crazy kitchen sinks into what should have been a focused blueprint for economic recovery. Then it was the stunt of unnerving Wall Street by sending out a shrill duo of slick geeks (Timothy Geithner and Peter Orszag) as the administration's weirdly adolescent spokesmen on economics. Who could ever have confidence in that sorry pair?

And then there was the fiasco of the ham-handed White House reception for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, which was evidently lacking the most basic elements of ceremony and protocol. Don't they read the "Iliad" anymore in the Ivy League? Check that out for the all-important ritual of gift giving, which has cemented alliances around the world for 5,000 years.

President Obama -- in whom I still have great hope and confidence -- has been ill-served by his advisors and staff. Yes, they have all been blindsided and overwhelmed by the crushing demands of the presidency. But I continue to believe in citizen presidents, who must learn by doing, even in a perilous age of terrorism. Though every novice administration makes blunders and bloopers, its modus operandi should not be a conspiratorial reflex cynicism.

Case in point: The orchestrated attack on radio host Rush Limbaugh, which has made the White House look like an oafish bunch of drunken frat boys. I returned from carnival in Brazil (more on that shortly) to find the Limbaugh affair in full flower. Has the administration gone mad? This entire fracas was set off by the president himself, who lowered his office by targeting a private citizen by name. Limbaugh had every right to counterattack, which he did with gusto. Why have so many Democrats abandoned the hallowed principle of free speech? Limbaugh, like our own liberal culture hero Lenny Bruce, is a professional commentator who can be as rude and crude as he wants.

Yes, I cringe when Rush plays his "Barack the Magic Negro" satire or when he gratuitously racializes the debate over Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who is a constant subject of withering scrutiny for quite different reasons on sports shows here in Philadelphia. On the other hand, I totally agree with Rush about "feminazis," whose amoral tactics and myopic worldview I as a dissident feminist had to battle for decades. As a student of radio and a longtime listener of Rush's show, I have gotten a wealth of pleasure and insight from him over the years. To attack Rush Limbaugh is to attack his audience -- and to intensify the loyalty of his fan base.

If Rush's presence looms too large for the political landscape, it's because of the total vacuity of the Republican leadership, which seems to be in a dithering funk. Rush isn't responsible for the feebleness of Republican voices or the thinness of Republican ideas. Only ignoramuses believe that Rush speaks for the Republican Party. On the contrary, Rush as a proponent of heartland conservatism has waged open warfare with the Washington party establishment for years.

And I'm sick of people impugning Rush's wealth and lifestyle, which is no different from that of another virtuoso broadcaster who hit it big -- Oprah Winfrey. Rush Limbaugh is an embodiment of the American dream: He slowly rose from obscurity to fame on the basis of his own talent and grit. Every penny Rush has earned was the result of his rapport with a vast audience who felt shut out and silenced by the liberal monopoly of major media. As a Democrat and Obama supporter, I certainly do not agree with everything Rush says or does. I was deeply upset, for example, by the sneering tone both Rush and Sean Hannity took on Inauguration Day, when partisan politics should have been set aside for a unifying celebration of American government and history. Nevertheless, I respect Rush for his independence of thought and his always provocative news analysis. He doesn't run with the elite -- he goes his own way.

President Obama should yank the reins and get his staff's noses out of slash-and-burn petty politics. His own dignity and prestige are on the line. If he wants a second term, he needs to project a calmer perspective about the eternal reality of vociferous opposition, which is built into our democratic system. Right now, the White House is starting to look like Raphael's scathing portrait of a pampered, passive Pope Leo X and his materialistic cardinals -- one of the first examples of an artist sending a secret, sardonic message to posterity. Do those shifty, beady-eyed guys needing a shave remind you of anyone? Yes, it's bare-knuckles Chicago pugilism, transplanted to Washington. The charitably well-meaning but hopelessly extravagant Leo X, by the way, managed to mishandle the birth of the Protestant Reformation, which permanently split Christianity.

Oh, the incestuous mediocrity of American politics and media -- compared to the splendors of Brazil! As a direct result of the two articles I wrote about superstar singer Daniela Mercury in Salon in June and August of last year, I was invited by the publisher Editora Abril to observe the 2009 carnival in Salvador da Bahia and write about it from an American perspective for the Brazilian magazine Bravo. Two weeks after my return, I am still trying to process the enormity of my experience in Salvador, which was staggering on every level.

As Daniela Mercury's special guest, I was generously granted amazing access to her home, dressing room, van, and the performance platform of her trio elétrico (amplified truck), where she has never permitted anyone to stand before. For someone like myself who has been studying and writing about the arts for over 40 years, this was a priceless opportunity to see a major contemporary artist in action. I doubt I will ever again witness a performance equal to the one of heroic dimensions that occurred on the fourth night of the carnival: Exhausted after two prior nights of intermittent problems with rain and electrical short circuits, Daniela went out there and exploded with fiery intensity as she sang 63 songs over six hours, with only one 15-minute break. And she was also dancing!

Here's a selection of photos of the Salvador carnival (with my captions) from Daniela's official Web site. They capture only a fraction of the immensity of the crowd, which on this beachside route of the carnival (from Farol da Barra to Ondina) surely exceeded a million. Of the striking costumes Daniela wore for each of the five nights, my favorite was the stunning white vinyl and lace Barbarella outfit, which Daniela had requested Martha Medeiros to design. What a spectacle, whose images will be burned forever in my brain: Daniela dancing in luminous white against the black sky as the trio elétrico slowly moved among the floodlit palm trees with the rippling sea glittering far below.

The ecstatic, inspired atmosphere of the Salvador carnival is well caught in this video of Daniela performing her new song, "Oyá Tê Tê," an ode to Iansä, the Afro-Brazilian goddess of wind and storm. Daniela is wearing a gold lace dress in the style of Carmen Miranda (whose international fame is often cited as the sole parallel to Daniela's among Brazilian performers), while her star guest, Margareth Menezes (whose rich lower voice can be heard), is in white. When the camera pans left, I'm visible with my Brazilian liaison, the intellectual Gunter Axt, at the rear of the platform. Standing next to us is Daniela's handsome and super-smart boyfriend, Marco Scabia.

"Oyá Tê Tê," evoking the mood and movements of a Brazilian candomblé ritual with roots in Africa, put the crowd into a delirium every time it was performed. The video cannot possibly duplicate the mammoth power of the drums pouring out from the second floor of the trio elétrico (my legs were vibrating for days!). But the eerie magic that I felt from the first moment I visited Salvador last year is manifest in this video, even in the mist hanging in the air -- which no one who was there that night actually saw.

In explaining Daniela's sense of connection with Iansä, Gunter Axt wrote this to me about the goddess: "Iansä is a woman warrior, a woman general, the synthesis of femininity and sensuality. She is the queen of all souls. It is she who can dispel the dark spirits that take to the streets when the candomblé is in recess during carnival. Iansä is the butterfly, the wind, and the lightning. Her colors are red and white. She is the fruit of the Surinam cherry. She is plenty. Iansä is a woman's pleasure but also all wars and conflicts. She is protective of gays, prostitutes, and transvestites -- those who are not protected. She is next to every woman who needs to fight and all women who express their sensuality." This is the ancient poetry of religion, without which the world would be a very barren place.

One of my strongest impressions of the carnival in Salvador was the vast sea of young people, who had come not just from all over Brazil but also from distant nations such as the U.S. and France. From the top of Daniela's trio, one saw in those glowing faces a sublime panorama of the life force, a throbbing vitalism that embodied a global humanism beyond politics. I will elaborate on my more specific reflections for Bravo magazine, but let me just say that dozens of times, as Daniela communed with the crowd or whipped past me with garments flying on her monumental chariot, I had visions of Egypt, Babylon and Rome.

The bottom line is this: The carnival in Salvador should be a major destination for young people worldwide. The great carnival in Rio de Janeiro is now a highly formal and regulated stage show, with rows of bleachers and strict police oversight. But what is happening in Salvador is pure energy unleashed, an improvisational celebration in the streets like the true source of carnival in the Roman Saturnalia. There are discreet and reassuring files of military police, but the real controls are provided by the Filhos de Gandhy, Brazilian men wearing blue and white turbans and robes in honor of the spirit of peace represented by Mahatma Gandhi. But over five nights of the carnival, I saw from my bird's-eye view very few negative incidents of any note. On the contrary, I was amazed at the concord and mutual respect of the people in the street -- especially as it pertained to beautiful and scantily clad young women, who would be mercilessly harassed at any street fair in New York.

In Salvador da Bahia, young people will find a profound multicultural experience that cannot be reproduced by any university. They will be enveloped by the thrilling spirit of music and dance, which is at the heart of Bahian culture. The main issue is finding a place to stay; cheap food and drink are easily available from the multitude of street vendors at carnival. My recommendation is that young visitors purchase an abadá (T-shirt) for one or more of the major performers so that they can revel in the streets while following a trio elétrico. But they should at least once view the long and majestic procession of trios from a high vantage point, such as the big balconies of restaurants, which charge a fee. No one who visits the carnival in Salvador will leave untransformed.

Ever since I returned to humdrum reality in Philadelphia, I've been working my way through the CDs that Daniela Mercury heaped in my welcoming arms at her lovely home. I was thrilled to finally get a copy of her epochal 1997 album, "Feijão com Arroz," which has been called a masterpiece. Of course, I now recognize many classic songs on it, but I've been obsessing over a relatively obscure one, "Vai Chover," which YouTube has in a rather blurry clip from a Brazilian TV show. The intoxicating level of musical excitement that is standard in Brazil is obvious in this video. I'm going to lobby Daniela's company (Canto da Cidade) to get the original of "Vai Chover" (a rain-filled love song) onto the Web, because it's a phenomenal example of her distinctive fusion of personal lyricism and syncopated articulation with fantastically complex percussion.

And then there's another obscure song that's blown me away: Carlinhos Brown's "Todo Canto Alegre" from Daniela's first and self-titled album (1991). Its intricate rhythms demonstrate the marriage of Brazilian samba with Caribbean reggae (descending from James Brown and funk) that produced Bahia's revolutionary axé style, which Daniela helped pioneer. Her soaring, melting, vamping vocals here are exquisite -- and at times almost spiritual. Why isn't this great song on YouTube? Hey, Daniela fans, get cracking!

Daniela Mercury will be performing at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 21, as the headline event of Brazil on the Beach, a three-day celebration of Brazilian music and sports on Hollywood Beach near Miami. Daniela's concert will be at the water's edge, and admission is free and open to the public. Oh, yes, I'll be there!

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.

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at askcamille@salon.com.

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