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Smokey and the Bandit

Photoshop image by Bill Reagan

To borrow a buzz phrase from earlier this decade, if the President stops dancing the malaria dance, the terrorists will win.

I have always found the lyrics to Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown" emotionally suspect. "If there's a smile on my face / it's only there trying to fool the public", he begins over the buoyant Stevie Wonder-penned music, proceeding to chronicle a narrator struggling to keep up a pleasant and proper front while hiding his inner anguish, forced to display a social facade that conflicts with his personal state. Smokey's carefully crafted lyrics cleverly express the ache that accompanies living with a loss, and the challenge of pretending that everything is fine.

But considering the song includes no request for reconciliation with the "you" referenced in the lyrics, the words can easily be interpreted another way: as the narrator's declaration that he enjoys having his cake and eating it, too. Throughout the song, the narrator assures the former recipient of his affections that his public display of happiness is a farce ("Now if I appear to be carefree / It's only to camouflage my sadness"), but without an overture for reunion, he seems to be seeking his former amour's sympathy while at the same time gallivanting with a gallery of bon vivants. (Taken to ridiculous extremes, that's quite delicious cake: If any display of happiness can be manipulated as evidence of regret, then one need not censor their activities at all. Hitting on the ex's friend? "Just an excuse to get closer to you, baby." Caught in the back seat with the waitress from Chili's? "Proof of my sadness, nothing more.")

What makes Smokey's duplicity tolerable is the simple, universal truth that after a trauma, life as we knew it has changed, and whether it's a minor heartbreak or a major catastrophe, we need to find a way to move on. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 (arguably the most painful trauma the United States has ever experienced), America seemed unable to celebrate anything, trapped in a perpetual state of shock and loss: How can one laugh at Jay Leno's tepid punchlines after nearly 3,000 innocents were killed? How can one obsess about day-to-day trivialities when the psyche is burdened with the weight of such an atrocity? As Bruce Springsteen articulated on his cathartic album, The Rising, "Tell me how do you get this thing started? How do you live broken hearted?"

Perhaps you do just what Smokey recommended: Do your best to control your grief, put on a brave face, and get on with living.

This challenge of balancing appropriate solemnity with positive perseverance came to mind when a friend sent a video of George Bush participating in the Malaria Awareness Day celebration at the White House, an event that featured a musical / dance performance by the Kankouran West African Dance Company, including impromptu guest performers George and Laura Bush. The event, captured on video, features the president enthusiastically performing with the troupe, including semi-synchronized dance steps and a startling burst of hand drumming.

I feel genuinely torn about Bush's performance. Not in a Simon Cowell sort of way (strictly critiquing the performance, it reminds me of the toasted uncle at the wedding reception, exuberantly dancing to a record he has never heard) but in the way that the nephew / groom would feel at that same reception: Yup, that's my irrepressible uncle. Yup, I hope this isn't a long song.

On the one hand, I am a firm believer in taking advantage of opportunities, especially those that may never arise again. There is so much self-consciousness in the world, and too often we content ourselves to observe from the wings rather than participate on the stage. For most Americans, one metaphoric shoulder has been occupied by the soundtracks of our lives urging our participation, from Sly Stone's insistent, "dance to the music" in 1968 to Young MC's 1989 exhortation, "don't just stand there / bust a move" to Lee Ann Womack urging in 2000, "when you get the choice to sit it out or dance / I hope you dance"; Unfortunately, the other shoulder has hosted the amassed voices of sarcasm and critique, imploring "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" with such fervor that for most, abstinence seems a better alternative than action, since action includes the potential of failure.

Look at American Idol, a wildly popular show that airs special episodes to mock those souls courageous enough to audition but whose hearts outsize their talents. Testament to the nation's enthusiasm for derision is William Hung, who gained wider notoriety for his unintentionally comic failed audition than Fantasia Barrino received for winning the contest the same year. America's culture does not encourage its citizens to participate in the action; it encourages its citizens to participate in the post-show review.

In that regard, I am genuinely impressed with the President. It's easy to mock his rudimentary footwork and guffaw at his unexpected attack on the djembe drum, but he had the courage to step into a line of professionals and flaunt his amateur status; Bush dared to be vulnerable in the age of YouTube, knowing that the throngs of Americans who take every opportunity to ridicule his precarious grasp of the English language and the awkward body language of his photo ops would soon be sending links to the video accompanied by the sparest of text, "LMAO". Bush had two choices on how to remember that portion of Malaria Awareness Day: The day he danced with the Kankouran Dance Company, or the day he stood by while the Kankouran Dance Company performed. His choice was a good lesson for Americans: Who cares if you might look like a fool? Who cares if you aren't a very good dancer? Don't just stand there, bust a move.

On the other hand, it was quite disconcerting to see the President, whose approval ratings hover in the 30th percentile by any pollster's measure, making comically ridiculous faces on national television. (Billy Crystal once coined the phrase, "doing the white-man's overbite" to describe how rhythmically challenged people dance to funky music. We can now expand that dance repetoire to include "the white-man's monkey face.")

At the time of this performance, the Iraq war continued to wage, with over 3,500 soldiers having perished since Bush declared an end to "major combat operations" while standing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln over four years ago. (That was the site of the now infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner, which The White House would later insist was the Navy's idea, though admitting that the White House had created the banner at the Navy's request.) The Army was mired in a public relations nightmare regarding the disgraceful treatment of America's soldiers at Walter Reed Medical Center.

Bush's Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the nation's top law enforcement agent, was becoming a focal point of an investigation into excessively political machinations in the US Justice Department. These circumstances do not seem to warrant a public display of jiggyness.

Bush regularly chastises Congress that America's leaders (and American's themselves) shouldn't make statements that will undermine the support and conviction of our troops. Yet I wonder how a US soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan (or for that matter, Toledo) feels seeing their Commander in Chief clowning in the Rose Garden: I can't imagine it's good for morale when, metaphorically speaking, the factory workers are subjected to mandatory overtime while the boss is off doing the limbo on the Lido deck.

Perhaps President Bush worries that exhibiting full-time public display of concern will embolden America's enemies. To borrow a buzz phrase from earlier this decade, if he stops dancing, the terrorists will win. Or to borrow Chandler's line from the sitcom Friends, "Either that, or Gloria Estefan was right; eventually, the rhythm is going to get you."

Whatever his motives, when the video is sandwiched between reports of deaths in Iraq and postured standoffs between the parties in Congress, I can't shake the feeling that this is the uncle who is dancing at the reception even though the groom has been stood up at the altar. This is not a time for gleeful celebration; it is a time for attending to duties, assuaging the sorrows of those who have lost more than mere political face. I watch that dance routine, including Bush's faux-Motown "dip your hands in the river and raise them to the sky" choreography, and I can easily imagine him singing the words that Smokey Robinson made famous: "Don't let my glad expression / Give you the wrong impression / 'Cause really I'm sad, Oh I'm sadder than sad."

And as I said, I've always found those lyrics to be suspect.

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