Thursday, June 18, 2009

A fly in the hand -- June 18, 2009 column


Under a headline that read “Bunny Goes Bugs” was a smaller one, “Rabbit Attacks President.”

A reporter could wait his entire career for a story that good, and Brooks Jackson of The Washington Post didn’t waste his moment. Here’s Jackson’s first sentence: “A ‘killer rabbit’ attacked President Carter on a recent trip to Plains, Ga., penetrating Secret Service security and forcing the chief executive to beat back the beast with a canoe paddle.”

Jimmy Carter’s run-in with a varmint while fishing from his boat was the kind of spontaneous, unscripted presidential moment that can crystallize public opinion.

The 1979 “killer rabbit” incident came to symbolize Carter’s weak and ineffectual presidency. The next year, he lost his bid for re-election.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush’s close encounter with an optical supermarket scanner left him pegged as out of touch with ordinary Americans. Bush, while touring a grocers’ convention, burbled that he was “amazed” by the scanner. Later, the White House tried to clarify the remark, saying that the instrument in question was far more advanced than the ones that had been in everyone’s local supermarket for a dozen years. But the damage was done.

The perception – or misperception – stuck that Bush was clueless about everyday life after spending 11 years cloistered as vice president and president. That November, the voters turned him out.

I was reminded of these quirky, defining moments when President Barack Obama, who has been derided as effete, the kind of guy who orders Dijon mustard on his burger, killed a fly with his bare hands.

Obama happened to be sitting down for an interview at the White House with John Harwood of CNBC, and a camera was rolling for the president’s tour de fly. If ever there’s a time for the word gross, it’s when someone smashes a fly between his hands. Of course, the footage became an instant Internet sensation.

What made the moment memorable beyond the ick factor is that Obama is often relaxed but rarely spontaneous. He’s so careful in image and presentation that he seldom makes remarks without a TelePrompTer.

That’s understandable since his every word is endlessly analyzed and dissected. This president is also engaged in a wider variety of weighty issues than his recent predecessors. This wartime commander in chief is trying to revive the world’s economy, fix the financial markets, tame the housing crisis, rewrite the nation’s health care system and run General Motors. And that’s before breakfast.

Everything about him and his family fascinates people. What kind of man is he? How does he approach the world? Is his famous cool genuine or an act?

Faced with the everyday irritation of a fly, Obama didn’t flutter. He didn’t call for a fly swatter or a butler. He smacked it.

“I got the sucker,” the president declared.

Naturally, reporters asked People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for a comment. The animal rights’ group said in a blog post, “He isn’t the Buddha. He’s a human being, and human beings have a long way to go before they think before they act.”

Harwood reported that Obama picked up the fallen flier from the rug with a napkin and disposed of the creature, saying he always cleans up after himself. Well, that’s a relief.

Obama is popular and the fly-icide was viewed as a macho display of man against nature, Ninja in the Oval Office. Me? I imagined the fly as a tourist excited to have gotten inside the White House in the first place. Instead of being the proverbial fly on the wall, the insect buzzed around the leader of the free world. Wow. This. Is. So. Cool. Splat.
The storyline on the Web was fun, if predictable. The Caucus blog on reported “Obama Could Hurt a Fly.”

Others commented on the president’s eye-hand coordination and the precision of his strike. Scientists who have studied flies and swatting say what makes killing them so difficult is that their tiny brains process visual information at lightning speed and then act in milliseconds. Now you know.

To be sure, the fly was the least of Obama’s -- or our -- problems. But the incident gave us a brief respite from Iran’s elections, the swine flu pandemic, North Korea’s missiles, global warming and the ballooning federal deficit. And Obama didn’t use a canoe paddle.

(c) 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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