Have you heard the news? Barack Obama is cool!
He’s not just cool, he’s way cool; the coolest thing ever!
Never having been “cool” myself (or desperate enough to seek its conferral upon me by people I always found to be rather sad trend-followers) I can only judge by past observation, but it seems to me that the first rule of being cool has always been that if you really are cool, then no one ever has to say it about you, because your “coolness” is as self-evident as the truth that all men are created equal.
If it is not obvious—if your friends in the media have to actually tell people that you’re “cool”; if they actually have to use that word (or worse, if they have to determinedly declare to the public that “He’s hip, he’s young, he’s not square!”)—then that’s really not cool In fact, it’s eye-rollingly lame; it’s “trying too hard.”
If I remember my Junior High-schoolese correctly, it’s actually “dorky.”
Being cool has to do with a lot more than being “young and hip.” No one is young forever, and any fool with money can be “hip”.
Coolness does not need anyone to define it, but allow me to try. The quality of “coolness” contains within it an attitude of discrete detachment, which is not the same as aloofness. It suggests an intellect attuned to a different frequency—perhaps to a higher muse—but still comfortable sharing the ground with the rest of us. Its muted confidence is so supreme that it bears no ill-will and holds no grudge against anyone who doesn’t “get” it, and that makes a cool cat more than likeable; it makes one slightly mysterious, and thus fascinating.
“Coolness” is not thin-skinned; it does not clench its teeth in anger; it does not overreach; it does not flail; it does not indulge in braggadocio; it does not make lists of enemies because its enemies already know who they are—they’ve been informed thusly, face-to-face, and usually with a smile and a perfectly chosen, personally meaningful gift. It does not sweat minutia. Genuine coolness knows it is not perfect and often acknowledges a blown occasion with a good-natured shrug rather than an apology, because coolness understands that not every mistake demands an apology—of others or oneself—and that too many apologies, offered too easily, signals a propensity toward the cheap and the meaningless.
“Coolness” is patient enough to watch processes play out before it comments or reacts but it has no admiration for crass thuggery and gives it no license. “Cool” people can sometimes seem cruel to their equals or their “betters” but they are never unkind to the rest of us because to be so would be—like blaming others for one’s own errors—the antithesis of cool.
Come to think of it, by these definitions, one could safely opine that the “coolest” leaders currently athwart the world’s stage are still England’s Queen Elizabeth II, who recently crashed a wedding simply to wish a bridal couple well, and His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, who takes the daily piñata beatings that come his way in stride, and answers with a blessing. These two old-timers, who lived through most of the twentieth century and therefore know a thing or two about keeping one’s cool in the face of sensationalism, thugs, and bullies never let anyone see them sweat.
Our president, we are being told endlessly, in an apparent appeal to the disillusioned “youth vote,” is the personification of cool. But is he, really? Certainly his manner and intellect are detached, but there is a tightness to it. His skin is so thin it is almost brittle, and his impatience with process has been demonstrated repeatedly, whether in his harangues against the Supreme Court, his moves to bypass Congress, his calling-out of private citizens for the release of partisan rancor, or his unwillingness to allow trivial inter-party snipes or noteworthy police investigations to shake out on their own, without inappropriate presidential remarks that almost invariably backfire on him. He seethes, and we can see it. At times, no doubt, he is entitled to do so. But there is nothing cool about it.
Although I certainly think he is smart, and plenty canny, I have never seen evidence of historian Michael Beschloss’ assessment that President Obama is “probably the smartest guy ever to become president.” I regret to say that—all media insistence to the contrary—the quality of his coolness is quite strained, and not at all obvious.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
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