I saw a French film a long time ago about the Sun King, Louis XIV, also known as Louis the God-Given or Louis the Great. There was a scene of Louis as a child being told sternly to never touch his face. The incident has stayed with me. Here was a boy and then a man who never touched his face in public. Touching of the face is usually a childish act of reassurance, to make contact with the oral centre. A king doesn’t require reassurance. There would be other behavioural matters of speech, dress and so on, and to be king required Louis to learn this public image.
Obama became, and remains, a public image, that of the first Afro-American (albeit a recent migrant) to become president. This required him to be extra presidential, to stay calm, to never, no matter what the provocation, no matter what the failures, to show grief or anger. And the provocations and the failures were huge: Netanyahu humiliating him, the Republicans refusing to be reasonable, Palestine remaining a mess, Guantanamo not closing, having to bail out the bankers rather than the mortgagees, Syria erupting, Afghanistan remaining problematic, Medicare scraping through in diluted form, gun control failing… And he killed a lot of people through drone strikes and expelled more illegal immigrants than his predecessor. But he stayed cool. He never touched his face. He was obedient to the system. (His successor, Trump, is a disobedient lunatic, losing the plot on every occasion.)
Now Obama has become a charismatic figure. He can’t speak about politics or judge his replacement. Instead, he has become royalty, above it all. The playing of golf by these leaders, is, it is reported, a chance to escape the immediate presence of their security people, who, given the spaciousness of the golf course, have to resort to hanging out in trees and other possible places of concealment.
Obama and John Key seem to genuinely get on. They were both brought up by their mothers and both have a migrant parent. John Key as well, never got angry or sad, never touched his face as it were. He’d learned not to need reassurance. Obama has written two books and is a literate man. Both books are explorations of the migrant child. In the first he searches for his Kenyan father and details the struggles of the white solo mother with a coloured child. The other book is a study of senate politics and I was impressed by the migrant boy’s willingness to learn the ropes and play the game. Key’s mother was a Jewish refugee and he in turn learned to play the broker game, then the political game. I suspect that neither, in fact, had a particular ideology to push, neither had a passion. They suspected such extremity. Obama, as writer, enjoyed the oratorical and oratory plays a role in US politics far more than it does in NZ. Key never indulged in verbal flights of fancy.
But having done their stint they now stand, like royalty, above the fray. Earning big bucks is easy: $400,000 an appearance for the orator; the broker can sit on boards. Not touching the face has its rewards.
It’s interesting to compare this with the experience of the Cuban revolutionaries who earned their mana though fighting in the mountains, through long marches in rain and mud, tormented by mosquitoes and asthma, depending on the peasantry for a meagre diet, wounded and exhausted but finally victorious, driven by anger and grief at injustice. Touching the face was not an issue. Liberty or death was the issue.
Royalty disdains such melodrama.