We’re living in the Age of Cool Dad, with politicians obsessed with burnishing their pop culture credentials, says SAMIRA AHMED.
It was a detail which might have escaped wider attention, were it not for social media. But there was Twitter, to capture photographer Gary He’s observation – accompanied by two pictures of the Canadian Prime Minister at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York – ‘Justin Trudeau is wearing Chewbacca socks. I’M DEAD’. The message has since had more than 20,000 retweets and 50,000 ‘likes’. A cursory glance further through social media reveals Trudeau also wore Star Wars socks on May 4, during a meeting with the Irish Taoiseach. (One R2-D2, one C-3PO, so there’s an unmatched quality for supposed added cuteness.) There may have been more such ‘sightings’ and, certainly, Vanity Fair even felt moved to muse on this possible ‘sock diplomacy’. But, for me, the tweet raised a few baffling issues. And I will declare a bias up front: I think novelty socks on grown men are actually a bit sad. And, yes, I worked as a presenter on Channel 4 News for 11 years. I know. So, feel my pain. But, more importantly, why do male politicians get so much easy adoration for such empty gestures? For a start, there’s the fact that the world’s media is now run by my Generation X of solipsistic Star Wars obsessives like 1971-born Trudeau. I suspect fellow Canadian Douglas Coupland didn’t foresee this when he coined the label in his eponymous 1991 novel. I mean, I like Star Wars. A lot. But there’s not that much to it. Seriously. There’s social media’s love of the apparent ‘look what I spotted’ claim, when someone does a zoom in on his feet, as if spotting the socks required skill and super-sensitive vision. There was a time when this might have been true, in the analogue age of de-coding album covers, dating back to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I can remember my own personal delight in spotting Blondie bassist Nigel Harrison’s Mr Spock socks on the back of the Parallel Lines album cover in 1979. But even then, it was just about, ah, he likes Star Trek. The fact is that Trudeau, privileged son of a former Prime Minister, has got a free ride on the current vogue for geekiness as apparent sexiness. Actual news will reveal that while he told the UN about his determination to improve the lot of Canada’s First Nation peoples, his government spent $110,000 to avoid paying $6,000 for orthodontic treatment for an indigenous teenager in chronic pain. An inquiry into the murder and disappearance of indigenous women is mired in controversy with resignations and complaints from families about being excluded from the process. There are questions about his friendliness with Chinese billionaires. The social media image lodged in my mind is the May 2016 video – not long after Trudeau’s election victory – showing him elbowing female MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau hard in the chest, while trying to grab a male parliamentarian in a procedural row. He didn’t even notice her, it seems. She said: ‘I was standing in the centre talking to some colleagues. I was elbowed in the chest by the prime minister and then I had to leave. It was very overwhelming and so I left the chamber to go and sit in the lobby. I missed the vote because of this’. Although Trudeau later apologised, the incident speaks volumes about women’s experience in the workplace. Shoved, ignored, not heard by the big boys. But, hey, check out my Star Wars socks. The cultivated ‘dudeness’ of Trudeau may have its apotheosis in the social media age, but it has a long history and not necessarily a bad one. As president, Lyndon B Johnson was very conscious of his poor roots as the least educated member of John F Kennedy’s cabinet of ‘the Harvards’, as he called them. (Johnson had picked cotton as a child). Suddenly in the Oval Office after the assassination, he arranged the first presidential cowboy-style BBQ reception for West Germany’s Chancellor Ludwig Erhard over Christmas 1963. It was in marked contrast to the French cuisine and classical music-loving Kennedys. LBJ was the real deal. But the persona he created broke with the elitist image of the past and was enthusiastically embraced by subsequent presidents. While Carter was a real peanut farmer, it was the Bush dynasty – Harvard-educated, Connecticut blue bloods – who most successfully reinvented themselves as Stetson-wearing, supposedly ‘authentic’ Texan cowboys. But there is a bigger history to this. Including why women don’t seem to benefit from the geeky dude image. President Clinton’s saxophone playing on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992, just after winning the California Primary, is probably the high spot of dude-ness. Bill Clinton plays the sax at a fund-raiser in Manhattan, May 1992. Photo: Helayne Seidman/AFP/Getty Images
No presidential candidate had done late night TV like it before. His rendition of Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel (a careful choice, don’t doubt it) revealed an exceptional man: a real talent, a white man who could groove, who had grown up genuinely at home with black friends in a segregated South, a charismatic charmer. Working for Deutsche Welle TV in Berlin at the time, I recall the rock star acclaim with which German crowds turned out for him on his 1998 state visit. A dude and ‘womaniser’ who targeted a young vulnerable intern; with hindsight, perhaps the subsequent exposure of his sexual misdemeanours was emblematic of how one could be used to distract from the other while being entirely intertwined. Tony Blair, I would argue, had the best relationship with dude-ness because he never made it an official part of his public life; staying more statesman like. But it was there in his past. The photos and stories that emerged of long-haired Ugly Rumours student band with future respected rock journalist Mark Ellen happened to be real things he’d done, rather than cultivated poses. Walking out to greet reporters after the birth of baby Leo carrying a mug of tea with a photo of his children on it was obviously deliberate, but lacked the geek desperation of Trudeau’s socks. Blair was a grown-up. Gordon Brown’s ‘I love the Arctic Monkeys’ moment was a dad-like misunderstanding. It turned out he’d been joking in response to a question about whether he preferred them to James Blunt (answer, yes obviously). And we all know he couldn’t fake any enthusiasm for these things his PR people made him say. And so we come to the Generation Xers, whose attempts at dude-ness have offered modern British politics some of the crassest examples. The real nadir of British political dudeness has been David Cameron and George Osborne’s publicly-declared pop music passions. One could argue Cameron insistence on picking The Jam’s Eton Rifles as a favourite, without any apparent awareness of its angry class war message, was proof if the song’s point: ‘What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?’ Paul Weller confessed himself baffled in Mojo magazine in 2015: ‘What did David Cameron not get?’ There was the painful relentlessness of it… The 2008 visit to Salford Lads’ Club building, as per the sleeve of The Smith’s The Queen is Dead album (Johnny Marr famously took to Twitter after austerity cuts began to hit hard, to make it clear: ‘David Cameron, stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don’t. I forbid you to like it’); George Osborne trying to prove his rap-loving credentials by citing a 1990s NWA concert as his best-ever gig. He also made a particularly lame joke about wanking while receiving a politician of the year trophy at the 2011 GQ awards. Interestingly, you can trace back former PR man Cameron’s obsession with the supposed humanizing effect of dudeness to the 2004 Conservative Party Conference, when he was policy coordinator. This bizarre gathering featured broadcasts of little ‘films’ in which the shadow cabinet declared their ‘likes’, as if off a Facebook profile. Nicholas Soames loved Dido, (yeah, the list dated fast) while Theresa May proclaimed her favourite album to be Fields ofGold by Sting. It was mortifying to watch. And, covering it at the time while at Channel 4 News, even then I suspected May had been dragged into it unwillingly. Because what’s really striking about dudeness is it’s a male thing. May, Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, even in her own way Maggie Thatcher – none of them got into positions of influence and power by sharing their pop culture ‘likes’. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, that it’s about their personalities, but in reality I suspect female politicians never have this lee-way. For a start there’s the way women’s dress is scrutinised for sexiness/frumpiness. In comparison, how safe is Trudeau’s little gesture of accessorising the bland uniform of the male suit and tie. Women are used to having to work harder and be better than their male counterparts to stand a chance of breaking through into positions of power. I sense that is why we see them rarely indulge their passions in public life. They are more often accused of being humourless. In reality it’s over-caution, because of the potential for a joke or gesture to backfire, under much higher and unrelentingly meaner media scrutiny. If you want to see Merkel’s true enthusiasms come through, it’s always understated. There’s a photograph I show journalism students when discussing the idea of how to read politicians’ public performances. Itis a 2012 shot of all the G8 leaders in an office during a break from discussions, watching the Champions’ League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich. Barack Obama looks like he’s trying, but not too hard, to show interest. Cameron is waving his arms around, thoroughly unconvincingly. Angela Merkel keeps her calm amid the dude antics of David Cameron, as they watch the 2012 Champions League final, between Chelsea and Bayern Munich. Photo: Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
But Merkel, a genuine football fan, is standing still, arms holding the chair back, her eyes narrowed, focused tightly on the screen. She is the only one who looks like she genuinely cares and is not aware of the camera filming them. A subsequent photo of her in 2014 with a quiet Mona Lisa smile in the locker room with the entire German men’s football team after their World Cup victory is perhaps the finest female challenge to the ‘look at my socks’ school of male posturing. At moments of major crisis, the dude gestures disappear. But watch for how fast they will reappear. If I have one plea, as a journalist, as a citizen, it is for all of us to reflect on the cumulative distraction effect of these moments. We can only blame the short attention span of the internet so far. No one is forcing us to retweet close-ups of Trudeau’s socks. The novelty of revealing our pop culture passions is worn old now. And lest it be said that I’m a grumpy curmudgeon, when a politician reveals a genuine nugget of personal passion I’m as charmed as the next one. For Newswatch, I once tweeted for opinions on whether Nick Robinson’s choice of Fat Bottomed Girls as his mobile ring tone constituted ‘Pomp Rock’ and got a witty and insightful response from then Labour MP Jamie Reed. Incidentally, Jamie Reed really knows his Star Wars. Knowing our politicians have their likes can charm us. It humanises them, but it’s not their job. So don’t let it distract any of us – as voters, journalists or politicians – from focusing on the big stuff. By the way, I’ve always preferred Star Trek. Samira Ahmed presents Front Row on Radio 4 and Newswatch on BBC1 and the Newschannel. She is a visiting professor of journalism at Kingston University