Monday, June 16, 2008

Obama discovers: Headgear makes the man

So what's the key to the Obama campaign's strength so far? Is it the 50-state strategy? Is it their good use of internet and netroots organizing? Small-amount donors?

Or perhaps it's about knowing how to walk that fine line between looking like an affable doof and looking like a ridiculous dork.

Many of today's right-wing bloggers were still awaiting puberty when, 20 years ago, this photo of an improbably-helmeted Mike Dukakis critically winged his campaign. Faced with the unenviable choice between a dork and a wuss, America chose the wuss.

Today, many those bloggers think they have a chance to re-fight the one-sided battle they missed the first time around, their own private Vietnam:

Newsweek's Andrew Romano notes today that when the shot of Obama on the bike [at right] as part of an excursion with his family in Chicago "hit the wires, the heavily trafficked right-wing message boards of Free Republic went wild."

Those postings, as you can imagine, weren't complimentary toward Obama (but several were creative).

I doubt if the Obama campaign will have to fire up the rapid response team over this one.

The LA Times coverage of this business offers several quotes suggesting this is far from a "Dukakis moment" for the junior senator from Illinois:

"I like seeing my politicians in goofy weekend attire. It means they're thinking about more important stuff."

- Simon Doonan, Barneys New York

"[It] makes him look like a normal, nerdy American dad."

- Andrew Romano, Newsweek

"It’s hard to get Willie Hortoned -- turned into the radical black guy who gives white America the heebie jeebies -- when you look as suburban, as unchic, as let’s-hop-in-the-Explorer-and-head-to-Costco wonky as Obama looks in this oh-no! photo."

- Margery Eagen, Boston Herald

As in the case of bowling a 37 on camera, Obama seems surprisingly comfortable with his inner doofus:

E]ven though he's a freshman senator and a rookie national campaigner, Sen. Barack Obama faced a quandary last weekend.

Should he wear one of those stupid-looking bicycle helmets that legislators say we must wear but only look good on Tour de France racers? And get mocked? Or should he go without the hapless headgear and get criticized for defying the law? Who does he think he is? Above the rules that apply to everyone else?

These are everyday decisions now. Obama opted for the hat. At one of two lucrative campaign fund-raisers in Chicago Thursday night, at the home of a businessman who donates bicycles to charities, Obama couldn't resist a little boasting. He explained that he faced a tossup: Risking ridicule or sending children the right message about bike gear.

"I had an internal debate," Obama admitted when a supporter thanked him for wearing a helmet. "Because I knew that the AP was going to take a picture, and they were trying to portray it like Dukakis wearing that tank helmet.

"But I wanted to make sure that the children who saw that picture knew that even the Democratic nominee for president wears a helmet when he goes biking," he said to applause.

"Now, obviously the rest of my apparel was apparently not up to snuff, because I got a hard time from all sorts of blogs ... who said I looked like Urkel."

The reality is that even the Tour de France riders know that those helmets look dorky. That's why the Tour rules allow them to go helmetless at the finish of each day's leg--provided the finish is uphill. If it's downhill, where speeds can easily hit 50mph, it's still safety over fashion. Children know they look dorky wearing them, but children are used to the idea that nearly everything grownups want them to wear will look uncool, so they're more resigned to it. It's adults that need to be pushed to wear their gear. Perhaps having a presidential candidate wear one without shame will help.


The Oregon angle to all this, of course, is that Obama is a cycling supporter, and spoke enthusiastically about Portland bike culture when he was campaigning here last month.

You forgive a lot of fashion Urkel-ness for an attitude like that.

By the way, conspicuous by his absence from this discussion is the Peddler in Chief, who needs his helmet for more than just a fashion statement when he hits the cycle trails on his property in Crawford. It's unlikely we'll ever see photos of Bush out wheeling with his wife and kids as Obama was, since the First Family undoubtedly knows the rule: Never, ever pass the president. And if any of the press corps thought Bush looked silly in a helmet, they were smart and career-oriented enough not to mention it.

(Hat tip to Sir Oolius, too-long-absent guest at Portland Drinking Liberally, for the link to Obama cycle stickers and buttons.)

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