But none of that puts you in the room with the PotUS. Hearing the same four presidential soundbites about Zingerman’s and minimum wage played over and over again on the radio certainly gives you the gist of what was said; none of it was earth shattering.
In fact, I’d wager that most Chronicle readers could generate a fairly accurate facsimile of the remarks made by the PotUS working strictly from First Principles. You know what politicians are like: Y’all a good looking crowd! God bless America! Handshake-babykiss-SMILE! You know what excites East Coasters about Ann Arbor: Zingerman’s! Sportsball! Wolverines! And you know how PotUS stands on the minimum wage: Raise it!
None of that puts you in the room.
And you’re likely inclined to say: So what? What’s the use of being in the room? What’s the bother of showing up in a specific time and place to see something that’ll be on YouTube ten minutes after it happens, to be watched at my leisure? Hell, Dave: Why did you bother wasting so many hours to be in that room? Don’t you have better things to do with your time?
And, while I do have better things (or at least better paid things) to do with my time, there’s always value in being in the room. In abstract, there’s value because being in the room is The Job. It’s what I’ve said I will do for you: I will show the hell up, and tell you what the hell I saw. This is the baseline contract any newspaper should have with its readers.
And specifically, on this occasion, there was value in being in the room because some things do not come across in articles and the op-eds and the clips and soundbites – not even in the unedited audio or video. There are intangibles – including all of the things that are outside the frame of the camera, too far away for the mics to pick up, or of little interest to the reporters on hand.
In The Room With The President
Appropriately enough, the venue for the visit was the basketball court at the top of the University of Michigan Intramural Building. This is an old building – constructed in 1927-38 – and the basketball court is a general purpose gymnasium: no bleachers, no built in hoops. Enormous windows allow excellent natural light, and the balls get dribbled on maple floors (which UM notes are original, and somewhat oddly constructed). All told, the innocuous IM Building is a goddamned fortress. It’s an open box with good light and excellent acoustics.
About half the space – the half with a conspicuous maize-and-blue MICHIGAN painted on the brickwork – had been prepped for remarks from the PotUS. It was cordoned off, then broken into two roughly equal-sized seating areas: “blue ticket” to the left, and “red ticket” to the right.
The red ticket section had seating, and was populated by Local Dignitaries (the mayor, UM Regents, Jon Conyers, a prominent metro-area family of personal-injury attorneys, etc.) and People Who Deserved Chairs (several UM sports stars, folks whose jackets prominently advertised their labor union affiliations, a voluble Detroiter in a track-suit who didn’t like banjo music and identified all of these people for me, etc.) The student section offered a row of portable bleachers against the wall beneath a sign reading OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL – which, when you think about it, doesn’t really have much to do with minimum wage, unless you’re really stretching it – and the rest of the space was standing-room-only.
These two sections embraced a little stage and podium for the PotUS, which was backed by another set of bleachers – packed with hand-picked UM students – and a very, very large American flag. In case you’re wondering: Yes, the students in the bleachers behind the PotUS were markedly more attractive than those who had seemingly randomly packed the bleachers in the “student section.”
The ethno-racial and gender breakdown of both bleachers and the student crowd seemed to be balanced, although I got the distinct sense that neither is a good match for the current race distribution at the university. That’s a topic for some other column, some other time (likely written by some other guy). This was all encircled by ring of steel made of the sort of portable railings I’ve seen used for ad-hoc cattle pens.
Orbiting all of this was a crescent of media. Some of the media were held on two risers (one directly opposite the PotUS, one to the right, sorta-kinda mirroring the student bleachers). These were crowded with thickets of tripods and cameramen. A roped off section of folding tables was packed with media folks crouched over lap tops. The rest of us journalistic rabble crowded at the cattle railing.
A very nicely dressed person wearing a “volunteer” badge told me that 1,400 people were in attendance. I have no idea of that number included media and staff. If not, then give that number a healthy bump of at least 10 percent or more.
Frankly, I have a lot of questions about much of the media. For example, of the folks like me crowded at the rail, very few were operating cameras, or holding recorders, or taking any sort of notes, or using cameras to do anything other than attempt to snap a selfie of themselves and the PotUS – who was no less than 65 feet away, standing behind a podium on a raised stage, and busy giving advice to college kids.
The point here, mostly, is that I’ve seen this crowd in other media accounts described as “raucous students.” And I just want to make the point that much of it (certainly in terms of floor space) was not students.
And although the students were exuberant, they were remarkably orderly given the circumstances. The lag between the audience load-in and the President’s actual remarks was at least 90 minutes, during which the organizers played looped, tinny banjo music at extremely high volume.
No one liked that music, and while the folks near me (I was on the rail behind the Local Dignitaries and Other Chair Sitters) were starting to get vocal on this topic, the close-packed students were happy as clams in a very crowded kettle.
The PotUS Is Such A Dad
What is the PotUS? For one thing, apparently, he is a Dad. And I don’t just mean to say he’s the biological father to Sasha and Malia; there hasn’t been childless PotUS since James K. Polk (who, Batmanishly, took on a nephew as his ward – so you could argue there’s never been a childless PotUS). I’m talking about the Nature of the sitting PotUS. George W. Bush was a “Cool” Big Brother – which is to say half rake, half bully. His father was a Study Hall Proctor. Reagan was, obviously, a Hollywood Actor. Clinton? He was an Elvis. And the current PotUS is a total Dad.
The PotUS arrived in his shirtsleeves, because he was ready to Get Down to Business and Hit Us with Some Straight Talk about wages and stuff. The PotUS complimented us as good-looking, and commended our work ethic and academic achievements. He seemed to legitimately admire the quality of the prominent sportsball players in the audience, which pleased the audience a great deal.
Then, like somebody’s dad, the PotUS cajolingly admonished us to sit down – which might have seemed sort of cryptic to home-viewers, because the crowd was cropped out of the shot. Everyone had given a standing ovation upon his entrance, and then remained standing. Many folks were standing on their rickety folding chairs – which any dad will tell you is dangerous, and bad for the chairs. C’mon, guys; settle down. I’ve gotta talk to you about something important.
This was all in the first three minutes and thirty seconds of his speech.
He went on to tell an anecdote about his lunch (Zingerman’s! ZINGERMAN’S!!!). He gave some really legit advice on properly structuring your college debt, and suggested that it’s important always to be polite when arguing with folks about politics. He may have advised us to neither be a borrower nor a lender, and to our own selves be true – I’d need to double check my recording.
Such dad-ish digressions were peppered throughout the presentation. The speech was taken up by long stretches during which the PotUS was clearly working crisply from the prompters and notes – stretches indistinguishable from every speech of his you’ve seen on video. And then we’d hit one of these sparkly little patches where the PotUS could be your pal’s dad, driving you to the movies in the family minivan, periodically craning back to explain something about compounding interest, or the infield fly rule, or why you always want to be sure your tires are at the appropriate PSI.
You know, standard issue dad small talk.
But the most dad-ish run in his remarks starts around 25 minutes in to the speech. The PotUS is talking about GOP economic policies, which seem to be in a rut: The same ideas stuck on repeat, despite being neither popular nor effective. He gets a little salty about the most recent attempt to repeal Obamacare: “Because they haven’t tired that fifty times!” And then about a minute later PotUS drops in a joke comparing these stuck-on-repeat GOP tactics to the film “Groundhog Day” – “except it isn’t funny.”
Now, I believe that line was scripted – and maybe not as a joke, precisely. He really seemed legitimately peeved at that point, just as he had with the “fifty times” jab a minute earlier. But the Groundhog Day joke turned into an actual laugh line for the audience – one that got a really disproportionate response. It really landed.
And you could sense the PotUS becoming emboldened, in the way dads will. You can see it in the video, a hint of it, but there in the room, you could feel the antic energy gathering. Even from 65 feet away, standing behind the crowd, I could feel a dad joke coming. It was like the portentous pressure front that precedes a tornado; my ears popped, wasps went nuts, squirrels fled, dogs barked at locked doors.
“If they tried to sell this sandwich at Zingerman’s,” the PotUS said, struggling to suppress his glee, “they’d have to call it [tiny pause] the Stinkburger.”
I’m quite confident that somewhere in Washington D.C., at 3:19 p.m. on April 2, Sasha and Malia found themselves spontaneously rolling their eyes. “Oh no,” they gasped, miles apart, yet in perfect unison, “Somewhere, Dad’s trying to be ‘funny.’ ”
The crowd in the IM building was perplexed, thinking Did the President of the United States just say “Stinkburger”? I know this, because the two cameraless-notepadless-compterless-recorderless “media” people behind me – “mean girls” from central casting in pastel blouses and dark pant suits, who’d been snarking throughout the preceding 28 minutes – said aloud exactly that:
Ohmagawd. Did he just say ‘Stinkburger’?!
Frankly, they were just saying what the rest of us were thinking – at least at that moment. The other 28 minutes of their chatter was all just catty bullshit about people, places, and outfits I couldn’t conceivably have cared less about. But in that moment, we were all together, all of us, from the most exalted student athlete to the lowliest scribbler, joined of a single mind, wondering:
Did the guy who makes the drone kill list just say “Stinkburger”?
True to form for a dad, our chagrin did not dissuade the President of the United States and Leader of the Free World. There was joke there somewhere, and he could feel it. From across the crowded room, I could see him groping for that laugh-line.
So he groped on dad-style after the Stinkburger until he found something else: “Or the … or the … or the … or the Meanwhich!” Nailed it!
Ohhh. Dag, Mr. Obama. That’s … that’s not great. You can pull over and drop us off here. We’ll walk the rest of the way to the mall.
That joke just hung there, stagnant and awful as a fart in a car. And then we all laughed, because – just like that fart in a car – the awfulness, and the fact that we were all caught in that awfulness together, was itself sorta funny.
Dad Jokes, Domestic Policy
It’s been interesting to see the Stinkburger joke spin out across the political universe, especially among folks who weren’t in the room. In the local coverage – much of which, I can verify, was based on first-hand accounts – the Stinkburger didn’t seem to merit much mention. Nationally, it gained some traction in the Twitter feeds of elected Republicans, who were suitably outraged (but not there, in the room with us). Now, over the last few days, it’s been shoehorned into the headlines and ledes of articles in Business Insider, Fox.com, Breitbart.com, the Washington Post, etc. – as though it’s a legitimate expression of executive policy.
In case there’s any question, there is no “Executive Order: To Hell with GOP Stinkburgers!”
But treating any part of the PotUS’s April 2 remarks as legitimate political rhetoric meant to sway a dubious electorate is just as nutty. He didn’t come here to convince 1,400 people in the Upper Midwest that raising the minimum wage by $2.85 is a good idea. We’d all waited hours to get in, gone through the security rigamarole, and then stood around for another couple hours listening to excruciating banjo music. The folks who were on board came because they were already on board. The folks who weren’t came so that they could find something to be angry about.
He came to give us what we want: A sense of connection with the Leader of the Free World.
And, true to his agreeable nature and intent to be an aisle-bridging centrist, the PotUS gave everyone exactly what they needed – even the folks who just want to be pissed off at him, even the folks who didn’t show up to be in the room.
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