Barack Obama and LeBron James
(I had a very long drive and, given how the flipbook passing of corn rows can no longer hold my imagination, I had time to think about this sort of nonsense. I did not, apparently, have enough time to consider how silly it would be to actually share these thoughts. As always, I'm sorry).
Over the two weeks I spent in New York, the most passionate lamentation I heard concerned voting for Barack Obama. The speaker's objection was to the president's handling of the country's various wars though it just as easily could have been the conceived watering down of the healthcare reform bill or the somewhat weaker than desired new financial regulations bill or the failure to extend unemployment benefits or the situation in the Gulf or... You get the idea. There seems to be a growing sentiment that the Obama presidency has been a disappointment if not an outright failure because a lot of people were casting their votes for an uncompromisingly liberal administration. That this White House has been so willing to extend many of George W. Bush's foreign policy priorities, that they've repeatedly negotiated behind closed doors with big business to weaken their two major legislative accomplishments, that they did not immediately shut out BP from responding to the Gulf disaster, they they kowtow to conservative Democrats who are undercutting their goals...well, a lot of his supporters feel like he's turned his back on them.
Which brings us, ridiculously, to LeBron James. The second most heartfelt regret I heard regarded James moving to the Miami Heat--effectively deciding to take a backseat to Dwyane Wade in order to form a super team--and how the speaker had, only the day before, loved LeBron James. James, instead of taking the Michael Jordan/Larry Bird/Magic Johnson root and trying to systematically destroy and humiliate one's biggest competitors, decided he'd rather join forces, choosing, at the cost of removing himself from consideration as the greatest player of all time, to play with his friends. It's a stunning decision, one that has basically turned James from the most popular player in basketball to maybe the most hated (at least outside of South Beach), and it feels like a betrayal.
And I guess what I thought about as I drove through, I don't know, Iowa, is how the disappointment in both cases is all about how we project certain qualities on public figures they are telling us explicitly they don't have. And we do this selfishly and childishly and, more than anything, historically. It's just easier for us to compare one figure to another when there's little else to go on. A great many of Obama voters thought they were voting for bizzarro-George W. Bush, a leftwing ideologue who not only reverse all the profoundly objectionable Bush-era policies but be as equally aggressive as the former president in checking off as many items from the party's wishlist as possible. And we thought this not because of anything Obama said during the campaign (though he certainly didn't mind anyone thinking that either) but because after the last eight years any Democratic candidate couldn't help but be seen as Bush's counterweight. Despite all the talk of bringing Washington together and moving beyond partisanship, we thought we were voting for exactly partisan politics only our partisan politics.
Similarly, James confuses us for having occupied a space in our consciousness that he never occupied in real life. All we heard about him since the time he was in high school was that he's the next Michael Jordan. Everyone was excited by this--fans, the NBA, even LeBron James (he wore the number 23). Well, at some point, LeBron James realized he's not Michael Jordan. In a vacuum, he may be a better basketball player, but he hasn't got Jordan's competitiveness (or at least his selfishness), and everything he's done since he's been in the league suggested as much (deferring too much, not taking over playoff series, seeming as interested in becoming a billionaire as in winning titles, etc.). And when he finally makes the decision to focus on winning, we're furious because it doesn't fit in with the role we'd given him. He's supposed to be the next Jordan not the next...well, there we go again. Pippen? James Worthy? LeBron can't just be LeBron, at least not yet, because we have no idea who LeBron is. We'll decide that when he's out of the public eye, right before we've defined him for good, facts be damned. We'll do the same thing with Obama (look at the way Republicans talk about Reagan with little regard for his actual politics).
We are simply too removed to be able to form deep understandings of figures willing to complicate our drive to define them (I'm not at all interested in implicating contemporary culture for this, if anything these sort of projections were much worse before mass media). And so LeBron will win shared championships just like Obama passed a middle-of-the-road healthcare bill, but nobody will be completely happy because they don't fit the narratives we've settled on. So we'll come up with new narratives around their equivocation and compromises, at least until they give us reasons to change our mind. Meanwhile, there are the George W. Bushs and Kobe Bryants of the world who act so completely as we expect that there's something shameful in the relief that, though we may not like them, we understand them.
Barack Obama and LeBron James