Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Mad Men's America, Part I

I've been watching exactly two kinds of television for the last few months: Mad Men and election-related coverage. There is some overlap here. The prospect of an Obama presidency represented a culmination of some of the social reforms that begin to boil in the 1960s—era show, where the elevators at the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency are operated by uniformed black people and women have just started to make their way from the secretary's desk to the agency's creative staff. Part of the show's appeal is the retro kitsch, the look back at a time that some would reflexively call "better" and show just how much different things are today, and why. The viewer watches the indulgence of the main characters as they have three-martini lunches and down oysters on the company tab and might feel a twinge of jealousy at all the hedonism, but there is, alas, no going back. There is a line to be drawn from those reforms to today, with Barack Obama as our President-elect, as the entire country continues to try and overcome the Sisyphean burden of slavery, one that no one who is alive today is responsible for creating, but, in our inability to even discuss racial issues with any sort of honestly or clarity, we are still grappling with.

Mad Men tackles the problem of memory head-on. Its main character, Don Draper, has a huge, shameful secret from his past, which he keeps at arm's length and seeks de facto therapy from by cavorting with women, drinking to excess, and keeping an astonishingly high outward self-regard. He rejects the premise that such a thing as "the past" exists, both internally and externally, as when he brainstorms for a new advertising campaign for American Airlines after one of its planes crashes near the now-Kennedy Airport. After a few lackluster campaigns that suggest to passengers that American is safer than ever, Draper walks into the middle of his office, stands on a chair, and implores his staff to look to the future for answers. "There is no such thing as American history," he says. "Only a frontier." The solution, he says, is to see what 1963 (the following year) looks like, not spend time dwelling on the past.

This is similar to advice he gives to Peggy Olson, his onetime secretary turned creative staff member, after she has an unwanted child with a co-worker. On an indefinite leave of absence, Draper finds her in the psych ward of a hospital, unable to speak and unwilling come to grips with what has happened to her. He tells her to pick herself up, come back to work and forget about the baby because "it never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened." There is no American history, only a frontier. Peggy follows his advice, returns to the office and continues her business as if nothing had happened, even under scrutiny. She keeps moving forward.

Some of the election-related coverage I've watched is not on MSNBC or CNN, but on HBO, which has been running the election-related movies Recount and Primary Colors fairly regularly for the last few months. Primary Colors is the story of a gifted young political aide in a Hollywood version of Bill Clinton's first campaign; while somewhat turned off at "Jack Stanton's" boorish behavior, he agrees to join the campaign full-time after a night-long conversation with Stanton's intelligent, patient and no-B.S. wife, who is played by Emma Thompson. During the conversation, the aide talks about how Stanton is so much different than all the other candidates, how he could be the rare candidate that's worthy of the office he seeks, noting some of the failed candidates in history. "We're all about history," Thompson's character says. "What else is there?"

What else, indeed? It turns out, however, that making history can be messy. Stanton's former affairs bubble to the surface, making his march to "history" that much more difficult. The gravitas of the campaign is undercut by the candidate's former dalliances outside of wedlock. And thus the campaign begins the actual day-to-day job of fighting the allegations and tacking back and forth to making "history" happen. It's the egg-breaking of the Presidential omelet, so to speak. There is no such thing as "history" in real time. It's about work. If you think Barack Obama's Presidential campaign proves otherwise, think again. For all the talk about the "historical" aspect of the campaign, the reason it will be something more than a footnote in history is the sheer amount of work it did. In an era where we have realized the power of correctly applying numbers to various disciplines, the Obama campaign focused on a single ratio — 1 in 12. Knock on 12 doors, and one of the people on whose door you knocked will vote for you. That's the math. It's the same type of math that baseball general managers apply to setting their lineups: have guys that get on base more often, you'll score more runs. Score more runs, you'll probably win. Don't pick the guy who looks like the traditional ballplayer; pick the ballplayer. Don't pick the guy who looks like the traditional President; pick the President.

See also: Mad Men's America, Part II

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