After a middling attempt at humor (“The better to see you with”) and flattery (“You guys look great, actually”), Carney settled on humility, pleading that his new square-rimmed, big-lensed, chunky-framed glasses were dictated by “the ravages of age.”
No luck. “But they’re hipster,” a reporter retorted.
“Really?” Carney said. “I thought they were sort of retro-nerdy.”
Two weeks later, they were gone. Why? Were they too blue-state and threatening, like John Kerry’s windsurfing? Or were they too cool and distracting, like the collegiate Barry Obama smoking under a fedora?
Officially, no. In an absent-minded-dad tale, he claimed he left the glasses on the car bumper when dealing with a bike rack and then drove away. He issued a mock apology: “I take full responsibility for the regrettable action that resulted in the loss of my fancy new glasses.”
Or maybe he just got scared — because fancy can be fatal.
Decades ago, everyone who got glasses got the same pair. Glasses were just glasses — a tool, not a statement. Think of NASA Mission Control, with its many bespectacled rocket scientists in Houston evaluating The Problem. Today’s problem is not what we’re seeing with glasses, but what we’re saying with them. Eyewear has become me-wear.
Suddenly, the frames that Carney owned and then disowned are all over the place. The young and the slightly less young, the creative and the slightly less creative, the brainy and the slightly less brainy have chosen to look at the world through the same big, unignorable frames. These black plastic glasses give men and women alike the same aw-shucks Clark Kent vibe: a wordsmith with hidden powers. It’s been many years since “The Revenge of the Nerds,” the movie, turned into the Revenge of the Nerds, the business story, with uber-geek Bill Gates becoming a master of the universe. Not all who wear the big-and-clunkies are imagining themselves a future billionaire or a secret superhero, but the implication remains: I can pull off this look because I’m special.
Until everyone else starts doing the same.
The glasses assemble disparate personalities into the same in-the-know set: MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Drew Carey of “The Price Is Right”; CNN’s Don Lemon and Zooey Deschanel on Fox’s sitcom “New Girl”; NBC’s Lester Holt and documentarian Davis Guggenheim; Sen. Al Franken and Fred Armisen of “Saturday Night Live”; Current TV’s Keith Olbermann and White House deputy economic adviser Jason Furman; Anderson Cooper and Kanye West. If the thick frames worn by Johnny Depp give the actor an Ivy League air, then with his new eyewear, Jay Carney (Yale ’87) gains an aura of Johnny Depp-ness.
Yet none of this can be discussed in public. It’s a Federal City taboo. Carney’s I’m-not-a-hipster discussion of his glasses felt as awkward as Christine O’Donnell’s I’m-not-a-witch commercial. In the White House’s nationally televised role, Carney makes a daily pitch to a disaffected electorate. Thus he must remain an avatar of We the People equality. Nothing about him can say anything other than “I’m you.”