America’s Royal Wedding

I was in Great Britain in the summer of 1981 when Prince Charles married Princess Diana.  It was a national holiday, broadcast live on every channel.  The quirky, aging bachelor prince had finally chosen his future queen, and the whole country was intoxicated with the young, fresh, beautiful, charming Diana.

It was nearly three decades ago which, together with the relative refinement of the British, meant that the festivities retained a measure of good taste amidst all the pomp and spectacle.  There were no rock bands, fire-jugglers, or dancing bears, and the newscasters had the good manners not to comment when the nervous bride interposed two of Charles’s four given names.

On the streets, however, schlocky memorabilia crowded the entrance of every shop.  Mugs, plates, key-chains, coasters, thimbles, and clothing of every kind sported the images of the royal couple.  Even in stuffy Britain, refinement and restraint gave way without a fight before the opportunity to make a buck — or a schilling.

I hadn’t thought much about the royal wedding for years, but reports of the Obamamebilia trade took me right back.  Mugs and tee-shirts were to be expected.  But who conceived memorial coins, implying but not quite claiming that they are special-issue government currency?  And it doesn’t even begin to stop there.

Writes Sheldon Alberts in NationalPost.com:

Want some Obama gold-embossed inaugural china? A single plate sells for $82 at the official inauguration store on E Street in Washington, just a few blocks from the Canadian embassy. An Obama inauguration medallion can be had for a mere $60.

For the less spendthrift fan of the president-elect, there’s no shortage of purchasing options – Obama colouring books, Obama chocolate bars, Obama bottled water and Obama paper dolls. For collectible newspapers buffs, The Boston Globe is selling a limited edition puzzle featuring its Obama election edition.

“People are spending anywhere between $20 and $300,” says Aissatou Sene, manager of Making History, a D.C. memorabilia store. The shop’s most popular item? Barack Obama hot sauce.

Maybe I’m just getting old, but all this strikes me as pretty undignified and distinctly unpresidential.  Especially when, according to NPR, vendors are hawking Obama underwear.  Is there more than an echo of Bill Clinton here?

I wasn’t even a year old when John F. Kennedy took office, but for all the irrational exuberance over the inauguration of Camelot, I suspect JFK’s coronation showed a little class.  There was hope-a-plenty then, as now, but exultation doesn’t have to be ugly.

In today’s classless culture, perhaps lamenting the loss of refinement is the equivalent of tilting at windmills.  But the memories of JFK’s Camelot and the wedding of Charles and Diana raise a different specter:  the danger of irrational expectations.

Had John F. Kennedy lived, he probably would have gone down in history as one of America’s competent but undistinguished presidents.  His performance facing the Soviets down in the Cuban missile crisis was admirable, but there isn’t much else to say about his presidency, other than the Bay of Pigs debacle.  On the list of presidential distinction, he probably would have gotten tucked in somewhere between Gerald R. Ford and George Herbert Walker Bush.

The tragic death of Princess Diana came too late to restore her to the pantheon of modern mythology.  Too much scandal and too much information irretrievably tainted her image  — and, to a large extent, the British monarchy with it.

Barak Obama truly does offer hope.  Most notably, he has exploded the fiction that a black man cannot succeed in America.  For that alone, his presidency is historic and his victory desirable.  But he is facing one of the most complexly contentious eras in American and world history, and experience is not on his side.  Most Americans hope he will succeed, since his success will be our success.  But if he fails, what then?  Will the media turn on him, as they love to do?  Will the Republicans or the Neocons or America’s White culture be blamed?  Will it be the fault of the religious right when the dream fails to become reality?

Most pointedly, with prospects so dim and expectations so unreasonably high, can Barak Obama succeed?  Or will the measure of his success demand impossibly high achievement, no matter how competently he acquits himself?

Good luck, Mr. Obama.  Today you’re marrying a very fickle bride.

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  1. #1 by Mordehai Simon on January 22, 2009 - 12:55 am

    I have admiration and problems wih this post. Certainly, your wonderfully named Obamamebilia is no reflection on the President. It is a reflection of the free enterprise of our country. I might even be a little envious of the more creative hawkers in the crowd. But President Obama has no say in the sale of Obama underwear. If he did, he might suggest boxers over tighie wighties,

    I also find your posthumous prediction of President Kennedy’s performance a roll of the dice. No President since has inspired a nation thus, and so to “rank him” between Ford and Bush I is evidence of why you probably shouldn’t visit Las Vegas soon (among other reasons). Who knows what this country might have been/seen if a John/Rober Kennedy confluence would have been realized.

    But the bottom line of your post is that President Obama offers our natio a new hope and opportunity. Yes we should be watchful, but I for one love his view of success:

    “Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon whic our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true.”

    This, and many more statements from the President, indicate to me that as Jews and as citizens of the enlightened world we must advance the values of our heritage and of our leader to bring these ideas to fruition

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