According to the White House website, President Obama had “no public schedule” yesterday. However, this didn’t stop the President from making a high-profile St. Patrick’s Day visit to a public establishment — specifically, the Dubliner Restaurant and Pub, a bar in Washington featuring basketball on TV and Guinness on tap. Joined by his distant Irish cousin from Moneygall, Ireland (where Obama’s maternal great-great-great-grandfather called home), Obama enjoyed a pint and the well-wishes of the patrons.
Of course, this was no spontaneous drop-in — impossible when you have a Secret Service detail who must secure any visit location at least days in advance. And of course this was a calculated election year photo opportunity. What’s interesting about this particular event is that it is not the first “spontaneous” presidential beer run, press corps in tow… just ask the regulars of the Eire Pub in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, who enjoyed a presidential pint visit in 1983 by a pioneer of contemporary televisual politics.
On January 26, 1983, President Ronald Reagan stopped in for a surprise visit while in Boston attending a conference. The bar was suggested by a special assistant to the president, a Boston native who knew the owner. . . and worked closely with Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, who was primarily responsible for White House media relations and image-making during Reagan’s first term. In an interview with Bill Moyers for the PBS documentary The Public Mind: Illusions of News, Deaver shared details about the media engineering of that visit — how the visit was designed to get video footage on the news of Reagan having a beer “with the workin’ stiffs” to perpetuate a positive public image of Reagan. This visit occurred, incidentally, at a point in time when Reagan was receiving blowback from his opposition to the corporate income tax — opposition that melted away due to some degree to public perceptions of this visit.
Reagan’s abbreviated pub crawl also came on the heels of an appearance by his political frenemy, Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, a Congressman from Massachusetts (in the seat once held by JFK) on the NBC sitcom Cheers. In the episode, O’Neill stops into the Cheers bar for a midday beer with Norm and Cliff. Reagan trumped that bit of image making with a “real” version — and, according to Michael Schaller’s Reckoning With Reagan, Deaver ensured that camera positioning would enable the scene to resemble a scene from Cheers.
Reagan’s pint at the Eire wasn’t his only trip to an Irish pub; on a trip to Ireland Reagan once more enjoyed a public beer — or at least he did for the cameras… reportedly, he didn’t finish it. Being of proud Irish descent himself, in the last year of his presidency Reagan visited an Alexandria, Virginia pub for lunch, a pint of Harp, and some live Irish music on St. Patrick’s Day.
Historian Daniel Boorstin famously coined the term “pseudo-event” in his 1961 volume The Image. A pseudo-event is one that exists purely for the purposes of being reported. While pseudo-events certainly precede the election and presidency of Ronald Reagan, Reagan and his media team led by Deaver mastered the craft for television news on the level of presidential politics. Reagan’s visit to the Eire Pub is one of his most notable pseudo-events, and as such cried out for the sincerest form of flattery. But subsequent presidents have largely failed to capitalize on this presidential precedent.
Not much evidence is available on President George H.W. Bush’s beer consumption… he always seemed like more of a wine and gin guy to me, although beer would be a better match for the pork rinds he favored as a go-to snack. President Clinton also visited Dorchester’s Eire Pub. He tried some Guinness on his state trip to Ireland, but it seems he was uncomfortable having his picture taken while drinking a beer… likely due to concerns over opponents linking it to his working-class Southern roots in a negative fashion. President George W. Bush, a recovering alcoholic, was occasionally seen consuming non-alcoholic beer, but he certainly never made a political event out of it.
But President Obama has embraced the beer, both as a satisfying beverage and as a political prop. Evidence suggests he prefers craft brews. Obama reportedly favors Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat Ale from Chicago (the beer he used to pay a World Cup debt to British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010), and the Obama White House is the first in history to brew its own beer — White House Honey Ale, made from honey collected in White House beehives and with a home brewing kit Obama purchased with personal funds. It was this home brew that the President consumed with Medal of Honor winner Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer last September.
During his first year in office, he selected Bud Light as the brew of choice while he attended the MLB All-Star Game, and during his famed “beer summit” with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cambridge, MA police Sgt. James Crowley. Bud was the safe choice for a new president looking to keep the image all-American. As Obama has grown into his presidency, he seems more confident with his choice of beer. Indeed, one-upping Reagan, during his state visit to Ireland last May, he visited a pub in Moneygall to enjoy a Guinness (as Clinton covertly sipped in Dublin, and unlike the lighter Smithwick’s ale Reagan ordered and didn’t finish on his trip). This despite some controversy that, as per Secret Service protocols, the White House would bring in its own beer supply rather than allow the President to be served local product.
So Obama enjoys a beer — and why not? George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were home-brewers, James Madison nearly authorized a national brewery and a Cabinet-level Secretary of Beer position, FDR’s legalization of beer during his first months in office led to the eventual repeal of Prohibition altogether, and Jimmy Carter signed legislation to legalize home-brewing — despite being a teetotaler himself.
And beer has become a metonymic symbol for “likeability”: a socially attractive, accessible personality and charisma that appeals to middle-class Americans. When George W. Bush ran for re-election in 2004, a Zogby poll found that 57% of undecided voters would “rather have a beer with” Bush than with Senator John Kerry. The “have a beer” metonym stands in for an imagined encounter that is relaxed, conversational, socially intimate, and unpretentious. These personality traits were central to the televisual persona of Ronald Reagan, and they may have constituted the margin of difference (along with disputed Florida votes) in Bush 43′s victory over Vice President Al Gore in 2000.
Televisual politics emphasizes the personality: the face, the posture and poise, the vocal timbre and conversational style, the ability to establish interpersonal chemistry (albeit in a parasocial manner, through broadcast media). Working class folks from diverse geographic regions, ethnic and religious identities, and work and family contexts can all understand “having a beer” as a point of consubstantiality, of a shared point of lived experience with which to establish common ground. Michael Deaver knew that in 1983 when he put Reagan in that Dorchester pub to counteract his policy stance that would advantage corporate interests rather than those of workers. A patron of the Eire Pub remembered that day, when interviewed by the Boston Globe on the occasion of Reagan’s death:
‘In here the titles are out the window,’ said [Rich] Bishkin, 49. ‘It’s you as a man or a woman. . . . That’s what Reagan projected here. Here it’s not Mr. President. It’s ‘Hey, Ronnie.’ He won over so many.’
And surely Obama, learning from the Reagan playbook as so many have, apprehends the political power of the pint.
Despite moments during the GOP primary election race when social issues like contraception and abortion flare up, the 2012 campaign will be defined by the economy and the central issue of jobs. Over the past year, and as recently as last week, public opinion polls consistently rate the economy, unemployment and jobs as far and away the most important issue facing the nation today; a Bloomberg National Poll last week has the jobs issue leading 2 to 1 over the federal budget deficit, the issue most prominently highlighted by the GOP field. The fate of incumbent presidents tends to rise and fall with the perceived strength of the economy and the national employment situation… as, indeed, Obama’s beleaguered public job approval ratings over the past few years have attested, only recently rising as the economy has shown signs of improvement. Obviously, policy alternatives are crucial.
But especially when the intricacies of domestic economic policy are difficult for many Americans to grasp, and when outsized public expectations regarding the power of presidents to affect the economy hold sway, the voters’ judgments about the character of the president (and his challengers, of course) become crucial. In his seminal work The Presidential Character, political scientist James David Barber argues:
To understand what actual Presidents do, and what potential Presidents might do, the first need is to see the man [sic] as a whole . . . a human being like the rest of us, a person trying to cope with a difficult environment.
Reasonably, the frame of reference all people have and most assuredly deploy first for assessing the personality and character of political leaders is themselves. Especially given the egalitarian nature of American political culture, couple with the emphasis on intimate personality communication required of televisual politics, Americans seem to want their presidents to be personalities with whom they can engage as equals. Now, to be sure, we want our presidents to be superhuman heroes, too, who fight the fights we feel we cannot. But when the realities of politics reveal that our heroic political expectations must necessarily fall short, to human levels of imperfection, the accessible personality may provide the necessary counterweight that can save a president’s ethos: He may not have accomplished all I wanted him to, but he’s a stand-up guy, and I trust that he’s being straight with me. The televisual political ethos emerging since Reagan is not just authority and virtue, but likeability. Because your beer buddy lets his guard down… he’s got no reason to lie to you.
Implications for the 2012 GOP race? Mitt Romney has battled a negative political media narrative since the start of the campaign: that he’s plastic… stiff and unmussable in his personal presentation, overly pliable in what he’s willing to say and do to win. He has also struggled with perceptions of his wealth and his attitude toward it; many believe he is simply out of touch with the concerns of those who struggle. His recent uncomfortable attempts to construct a “down-home” likeability for Deep South voters through “y’all” greetings and descriptions of cheesy grits were successful only for about a third of primary voters in Alabama and Mississippi last week., and became the butt of late-night TV jokes.
Romney is still trying — his campaign is now staging a contest for $5 donors, a chance to win a trip to California to dine with the candidate on “the country’s best cheeseburger, fries and chocolate milkshake combination” (still currently an undisclosed location).
But now, on St. Patrick’s Day, the day when the candidates are competing for Missouri caucus voters, and three days before the Illinois primary (home to many suburban voters with Chicagoan roots and Irish heritage), Rick Santorum’s campaign serves up a photo op of the straight-laced social conservative hoisting a Guinness. Sláinte!
Mitt Romney, a faithful Mormon, does not drink.
Looks like he’s lost the Pub Crawl Primary.