Leading Men
Barack Obama and John McCain Want the Biggest Role in Politics, Yet Each Candidate Has Very Different Star Qualities to Offer

By Stephen Hunter
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 6, 2008

W onderful moment in John Ford's "The Searchers," from way back in 1956: John Wayne, as the surly, violent Ethan Edwards, signals to his young compadre that it's time to move on in their pursuit of Scar, the Comanche chief who's murdered their family and kidnapped the youngest daughter, Debbie.

"Let's go, blankethead," he scowls to the young Martin Pawley.

I love the Duke's pronunciation of the word "blankethead"; it radiates contempt for the young and the untested. Ethan is using the blast of scorn to tell the young man not only to get going to his horse but to get going in growing up, to acquire sand, grit, salt and all the other granular metaphors for old-guy toughness and savvy. Blankethead: It's a three-syllable telegram on the theme of the fecklessness of youth, and nobody but Wayne could turn it into poetry.

But in the same instant, I remember Will Smith in the original "Men in Black." The hotshot young cop has been recruited to an alien-hunting team secretly HQ'd in a New York bridge, and now he's working for Tommy Lee Jones and Rip Torn. Torn and Jones are babbling about something and not paying attention to Smith. There's a moment of frustration on the young face, and he interrupts with his own blast of scorn: "Hey, old guys !"

It's a voice full of impatience, annoyance, even contempt, suggesting they haven't the energy, the quickness or the attention span to take care of business. It's on him, now, the new guy, the kid: He's got to keep them from wandering off, losing track, drifting as the old are wont to do.

Both those moments come to mind when contemplating the politics of the day. That's because, while the next few months can be dissected from many angles, the template that the Obama-McCain race seems to demand is familiar to anyone who has paid the slightest attention to popular culture over the years: old star/young star.

We seem to be at the classic moment when one generation of stars, with their traditions of heroism, beauty, grace, sexiness, their connection to old values, directly confronts the next generation, which, of course, also has traditions of heroism, beauty, grace, sexiness and connection to values, except they're entirely different. It's not hard to see Sen. John McCain calling the young, fresh-faced Sen. Barack Obama a "blankethead," just as it's easy to imagine Obama interrupting his opponent in a debate with a hectoring, "Hey, old guy."

You might consider it a lobbying effort not to win an election but to get a starring role in "The Next Four Years." And the star thing that you will contemplate is contrived of two elements: image, as polished and packaged by PR and advertising professionals, but also a kind of truth the camera yields not because of the advisers, but in spite of them, sometimes in counterpoint to the official image. Trying to keep track of what the camera reveals -- both on purpose and by accident -- is like looking at audition clips back in the old days with a bunch of studio scouts, like the one who (possibly apocryphally) concluded about Fred Astaire, "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little."

So put your feet up, light a cigar, nurse a Scotch and consider in the flicker of the images: Do you want the old guy with his known values, strengths and weaknesses? Many producers have trod that path, and the best thing that can be said is that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Or do you want the new guy, the fresh face, with the excitement and the sense of possibilities? It works, too. It also fails, too.

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His image engineers want you to see a twinkly fellow, quick-moving given his age, his scars worn proudly, speaking quietly of experience. It almost works. When you look at McCain's battered face and his movie-star-stunning wife (blond, blue-eyed beauty) it's hard not to see a Duke Wayne, a Robert Mitchum, even a Harrison Ford. He seems, at times, put together from parts of various stars or their roles. He has the star's masculine charm. As a young aviator, he was studly enough to date a stripper. And as an older guy, he was cool enough to marry a woman who was probably the most beautiful rich one or the richest beautiful one in the world. Nobody will write this anywhere except me here, but we guys, you know what: We admire another guy for making a great catch.

He's still attractive and, old-star vanity, especially if the camera hides his shortness (he's 5-foot-9), as it did for the 5-foot-6 Alan Ladd, among others. His private mien is that of any of the macho '30s type: a jokester who on his "Straight Talk Express" was famous for the high level of hilarity he produced among reporters with an endless torrent of dirty stories.

He has, of course, Wayne's rage (the famous temper) and impatience. He was formed by an extremely hard-knock system, first at Annapolis, then at flight school, then in battle, then in prison camp and torture, and finally, for 23 years, in politics. He seems like one of those alpha dogs that others kind of fear because he actually likes to fight. He doesn't fear confrontation or force like most of us; he considers their application fun. That makes him cool; that also makes him scary. He's like a gun in the house: unnerving, but when you need it, baby, does it feel good.

But behind it all, even the image experts can't banish the maybe too-intense gleam in his eyes, and when he slides into his occasional slow, quiet cadences -- remonstrating against Wesley Clark's comments on his "limited" qualifications last week -- perhaps it's because he's strangling the fury that's within him. Did all those hard knocks unhinge him? What about his small-man's bellicosity? Will he crack under pressure like Bogart's Queeg, or will he hang tough forever, just like the Duke's Sgt. Stryker, even when his men hate his guts? Is violence -- having dropped bombs and having been tortured -- too easy a solution for him?

He'd be the only president in years and years who has actually killed people, for when he flipped the toggle on his Skyhawk and dropped a couple of 500-pounders down toward some ridge or factory or SAM installation, and when they detonated, you know that people died by his direct agency, though the names are lost forever. That's a movie-star thing, isn't it: the willingness to kill? Look how much good it did the Duke or Clint Eastwood. They shot their way to the top. But while we admire that as an expression of machismo in a tight little world of fabricated melodrama, do we want it in a president today?

McCain's warriorhood, once a key star attribute, now comes freighted with ambiguity. He lived up to the faith of his father and never questioned it, but today a lot of people can't endorse it without caveat and context; there's less enthusiasm for killing and killers these days, and McCain acknowledges this by stressing his suffering in wartime captivity, not his killing in wartime missions.

* * *

Yet that, too, is an issue that cuts a certain way with Obama, both as politician and star, and it has to be one of the issues the camera shows even as his advisers would prefer not to deal with it. Can he deploy force? He seems to hate it. Smooth, unflappable, rational, he's not quite the hopeless dork Dukakis became in that tank with the I'd-rather-be-anywhere-else expression, but still he lacks the physicality of gravitas, the imprimatur of hard-earned wisdom, and much in the way of physical commanding presence. He'd never call anyone a blankethead; he's too rational for that. He's so thin, almost spidery, he doesn't seem to cast much of a shadow. He slides, he doesn't stride. Has he ever been in a fight? Can he take a punch? Does he get nervous when people are yelling at him? Hard to say.

In movie terms, he's the new thing, the star who doesn't do his own killing (see, for example, Denzel Washington in "Devil in a Blue Dress," in which Don Cheadle comes along to take care of the dirty business). And when we look at Obama, what we see is a kind of pre-muscled-up Will Smith, the Will Smith of easy charm and suave conviction, a canoodler, a persuader. But a star needs to be able to clean up Dodge, no? Remember, John Travolta saved his career by going to the guns in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction."

It's his very newness that seems to make him a star and attract all that love and all that money. He's not from the old war-and-politics mill, and he represents himself as someone forged in a new crucible, a multiracial, internationalist upbringing, which gives him a unique, almost mystical insight and which he uses to underpin his claims of being different, not just a business-as-usual pol. It'll be fascinating to see if the performance that played so well in the Democratic primaries will galvanize a nation composed of many people not self-selected to respond to that message. And if he begins to fade, will he himself lose faith and become just another pol?

In Hollywood terms, he recalls the early '70s, when the old, handsome, conservative stars gave way to young actors with names like Pacino, Hoffman and De Niro, who were far from classically symmetrical with shiny meadows of Brylcreemed hair, but instead shaggy, ethnic, full of unusual rhythms and vulnerabilities and with no interest in killing Indians or blowing up Nazi dams. But then they became a new Establishment on their own, as did their directors; and now they too are being replaced.

It's certainly true that Obama has movie virtues that poor McCain lacks: great teeth, for example, and a big-featured, extremely expressive face. He looks sensitive; you'll never see contempt or implicit supremacy on that smooth, adorable mug. He has an orator's voice, a command of mellifluous rhythms, where poor McCain's voice and laugh are nasal, and feel crimped and nerdy. But alas, there's nothing granular about him, no grit, no salt, no sand. The ears, comic fodder for some, actually help him by giving his looks uniqueness. He's also exceedingly graceful, which the camera picks up. The footage of him driving to the hoop after a juke, controlling his body through traffic as he rises to the rim and lays off an easy two, is priceless and probably worth a million votes, as any ballplayer will recognize the assurance of natural hand-eye.

He's likable, but is that enough? Americans can like a star -- look how far Tom Hanks has gotten -- but it's an exception, a special case. Obama will last longer if he's respected. Running for office is incredibly demanding, true; Obama's a real smart guy and he'll quickly acquire the discipline that prevents him from saying "I've visited all 57 states."

Obama's at the clutch of a star's career crisis. He's had his breakthrough. He needs another starring movie to consolidate. Yet the scrutiny will be upgraded, the audience is larger, and rumors are starting to dog him as they do all stars. So it remains to be seen who will get the big role in "The Next Four Years" -- and maybe the sequel "The Next Next Four Years."

You casting agents out there have to make a decision.

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