Buy a card, mock a president
If it weren’t for all the summer birthdays in my family, I might have missed the cards that reveal more about the nation’s state of mind than a Gallup Poll.
Count backward nine months from July and August and you can figure out what my relatives were doing, two by two, on certain frosty winter nights many years ago in the Midwest. Which is why, many decades later, I found myself shopping in a red-state chain store for a lot of birthday cards.
I do appreciate choice. It just wouldn’t be America if we didn’t have more varieties of toothpaste and tube socks than there are planets in the solar system. But the options in the greeting-card aisle were turning me into a cranky Goldilocks, flipping through cards that were too sappy, too vulgar, too rude, too corny -- nothing just right.
Then I saw a face I recognized. I knew it from the newspapers. What was it doing on a birthday card? It was George W. Bush, looking goofy. There he was on another card, looking bewildered. And there was Dick Cheney, smirking from his own card.
I picked them up and looked around to see whether I was being watched. Sedition on Aisle 6? Bush, in black tie, is grinning on one card, and the message read, “What’s a birthday party without a clown?” I’d seen a few Bush greeting cards before, but they were pretty genial, joshing the chief exec for his mispronounciatin’. This was on a different magnitude. It wasn’t a deep blue blog or a cable TV comedy show. It was an American Greetings card, made in Cleveland by the same company that created Holly Hobbie, calling this president of the United States a clown.
Before I got brain whiplash trying to figure this out, I called a professional big thinker. John Adams is a visiting professor of communications at Hamilton College in New York, and he’s analyzed political humor. What we laugh at, he said, “tells us just as much about who we are as an audience” as it does about the joke. Significantly, laughter “is the surest sign of where we’re coming from.”
Where we’re coming from now, it seems, is very different from where we were a few years ago. For a long time after 9/11 and through the early days of the Iraq war, wholesale, mainstream mockery of Bush and his policies was off-limits -- and therefore unsound marketing.
It’s political polling by market research: No company’s going to manufacture anything that it doesn’t expect to sell. So a critical mass of American greeting card consumers must now be amused and disgusted enough to buy a card calling Bush a clown.
You can lose blue-state America. You can lose Katrina America and Prius America and iPhone America. You can even lose chunks of red-state America. But when you’ve lost Hallmark America
as they say on the tennis courts of Kennebunkport: That’s game, set and match, Binky.
A couple of days after my shopping trip, a national poll clocked Bush’s job approval rating at 27%. More people have faith in UFOs than in Bush’s presidency. It’s likely the only man he beats in the polls these days is Charles Darwin.
If Bush were an actor, he’d be box-office poison. In Pennsylvania he may be legal poison too. A township is being sued by an elderly man who was charged with disorderly conduct after holding up an antiwar sign as Bush drove through town. The township’s lawyers tried and failed to ban mention of Bush’s name from the trial, saying even the mere mention of it “presents the danger that the jury will favor” the old man.
There were a lot more political cards on the racks. One had Bush asking Condoleezza Rice for help reading “a secret message from Hillary Clinton.” Condi tells him he’s reading it upside down -- that’s the secret. Inside, it reads “Hello, moron!” First clown, now moron.
In another, Bush is rockin’ to an iPod playlist of tunes such as “Oil Fields Forever,” “Cheney’s Got a Gun,” “Knockin’ on Iran’s Door” and “You Ain’t Seen Nuthin’ Yet!”
Card companies haven’t quite made up their minds about the marketing potential of other national pols. I didn’t see one card singling out any of the nine Republican presidential candidates, the field Newt Gingrich just called a “pathetic” lot of “Pygmies.”
But there’s one with Barack Obama’s smiling picture captioned like an autographed 8-by-10 glossy, “Happy Birthday & All the Best! Barack Obama,” and inside, “Thought this would really brighten up your desk.” I couldn’t tell whether that was meant to be an admiring sender making that last point or a dig at a full-of-himself Obama.
Clinton’s “Happy birthday from the most powerful woman in the free world,” and inside, “If this doesn’t scare you, another birthday shouldn’t bother you at all” is surely an early entry in a slew of swings at Clinton, now closing in on 20 years as a national Rorschach blot.
Halloween’s coming, and now that 73% of Americans may be laughing at Bush through their pain, what has the greeting card industry got in store for us? Any more points off the approval rating and we might see a card featuring a hooded Abu Ghraib figure with Bush’s face, and inside, “Trick or treat.”