The City as Symbol
A visitor can’t help but be impressed by Washington DC. A monumental city, a living history of all that is right, and a lot that is wrong, about America. From the wonders of the Smithsonian (19 museums and counting) to the three focal points of the American Government (White House, Congress, Supreme Court), the City, or at least the marble-white shiny centre part of it, serves as a rallying centre to US citizenship. If ever there was a reminder needed, the sheer amount of military memorials serves as that testament to American History, the Blood and the Treasure. An observer will see the depressing down-side – walk a few blocks from Union Station and there’s the shocking sight of the Homeless pushing shopping trolleys laden with cans and card-board – some of whom are addicts, some of whom are mentally ill and most distressing of all for many Americans of both Red and Blue, ex-military men and women, unable to adjust to civilian life after serving their country in Iraq or Afghanistan. Spend any time in Washington DC and you’ll see a constant theme of a Nation that is rallied and held together by symbols – the relative youth of the State means that the flag, the anthem, and the Constitution (still held up with mythical awe by most Americans) bind a divided Commonwealth together in times of division (most times during peace-time really). Many of the cliches about the melting pot still hold though. Listen to the story of the Afghani taxi driver, now a naturalised citizen, of how he earned enough to put his kids through the college system, funding for which would break many a parent. There are thousands of such tales. DC tells both – a City that typifies the American narrative, for better and for worse.
Cable ‘News’ TV in the States is American news broadcasting at its most vocal, biased, passionate and sometimes, downright crazy. Three stories dominated the mainstream and cable news last week, namely the attack at Benghazi, the IRS auditing of Tea Party groups and President Obama’s new policy on drones. But the two opposing News Cable Giants had completely differing views on these issues. The easiest way to describe the difference between Fox News and MSNBC is to compare them as Right Wing Republicans versus Liberal Democrats. But there’s more to it than that. MSNBC attempts, with some success, to advance Al Franken’s hit and miss project of making progressive news as populist as right wing shock jockery. The ‘Ed Show’ MSNBC, is a vehicle for arch-Liberal, Ed Schultz, to call out the Republicans on their undermining of the Public Sphere. He attacks opponents in as aggressive a manner as the GOP/Tea Party would attack the ‘Liberal Elite’. Schultz served a suspension for losing it and calling conservative commentator, Laura Ingraham a ‘Right-Wing Slut’. Ed is as kick ass as any Ted Nugent but with well marshalled facts and decent arguments; he is that long waited for response to the perennial question ‘what are liberals doing to fight back on their home-turf issues?’. Then switch over to Fox News and you get the parallel universe where Obama is scarcely given any respect, seen as soft on terror (highly controversial drone strike rates and he killing of Osama Bin Laden barely registering with this crowd) and where you’ll also get pandering of the worst sort to the baser political instincts. So while the radical left may not always be happy with the Beltway Inside Baseball practiced a lot on MSNBC, shows like ‘Morning Joe’ should be welcomed as willing to take on Fox and all their Friends at their own game.
Painting the Presidents
If you take a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, you’ll probably check out the permanent exhibition, ‘America’s Presidents’. The descriptor for each painting is as interesting as the portraits themselves. How does the Smithsonian describe Richard Nixon? Pretty much warts and all, with no glossing over ‘Watergate’ or his impending impeachment. Will George W Bush be remembered as a Hero or Villain? Sort of a bit of both; 9-11 and the Iraq War are name checked. Would Gerald Ford be seen as a Homer Simpson or Forrest Gump figure plucked from obscurity, having greatness thrust upon him? Here the descriptor is kind to Ford saying that even though he pardoned Nixon, he proved that the Constitution worked. The modern portrait painter’s job is very different to that of the era from Washington up to Lincoln; photography means that portraiture can be more interpretative, less realistic. Sensibilities have changed too; deifying the President is less expected than an attempt to capture the essence of the Individual and a portrait allows a painter to try to present the nebulous spirit of a President in representational form. The official record has to be more subtle than the ‘Man as God’ School of Painting for portraiture to retain relevance in the digital and post-digital age.