Sunday, January 18, 2009

Burris: Hero Plausible, or Hero Passable

In the hours following defamed Illinois Governor Blagojevich’s appointment of Roland Burris as the junior Senator, news organizations and pundits were quick to, on one hand, condemn the appointment while, on the other, not seem like they were beating up on a “decent,” and “honorable” man. I put those words between quotation marks not because I mean them to be read ironically, but rather to underscore how often the pundits used these words. No one wanted to lash out at the appointee, but they still wanted to get their licks in on the "appointer."

A minor, somewhat mediocre circus ensued, culminating in Burris being turned away at the threshold of the Senate for not having the proper credentials – in this case, the signature of the Illinois secretary of state. Between the appointment and the shunning, the media attempted to report on Burris’s career in politics, perhaps hoping to find something of corresponding gravity to keep the Blagojevich orbit of scandal arcing through the firmament. But what came out wasn’t much. Burris is an also-ran, a has-been, a political journeyman. Wikipedia provides highlights of a resume which includes such offices as National Bank Examiner for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for the U.S. Treasury Department; Director of the Department of Central Management Service for the State of Illinois, and Attorney General for the State of Illinois, arguably his only blue-chip office.

On the other end of the ledger are the many failed runs at higher office. Unsurprisingly, former Comptrollers seldom possess the charisma and political dynamism to win over the majority of the electorate. Suffice to say, the good people of Illinois said “no” to Burris at every turn. Subsequently, and until his recent infamous promotion, he had seen fit to stick with his consultancy and his go-to-guy work for a major law firm.

So the call to service from Governor Scumbag must have seemed like a mixed blessing. Burris, at 71, is unlikely to ever win a major state-wide or national office on his own merits. To be elevated from private citizen to a seat in arguably the most powerful legislative body in the world must be beyond seductive for a political animal like Burris. The one power which Burris has going into the process - and perhaps the one which compensates for his lack of charisma – is his knowledge of the law. The facts of the matter are thus: Blagojevich has not been impeached. He remains in power. And while in power, he has the right to exercise it. The power to appoint a vacant Senatorial seat is perfectly within his constitutional purview. Burris knew this. He also knew that he himself was clean. (Perhaps one of the perks of being a political loser.)

If he could weather the scorn and the scandal, he would be the junior Senator from Illinois. No asterisk and no footnotes. It might not be a perfect democracy, but we are a country that likes the letter of the law. We can be positively thermostatic about it. We hate to use the excuse that so-and-so won by a “technicality.” We give folks their due and move on. We even got used to the odious 2000 election results. Burris might understand this aspect of American culture. Blagojevich is essentially a hypothetical “Governor X,” someone used in a civics class to represent the person of the chief executive of a state. And in every “what-if” scenario, the Governor retains powers until removed from office. The fact that it may be a fait accompli does not diminish the fact that the constitution of the state does not have a provision for depowering an executive because he or she is suspected of illegal acts.

Through it all, Burris has acted, dare I say, senatorially? His recent occasions in front of microphone bouquets or in the frame of nightly news shows display a man who is on message, determined, and not overly excited. There is no audacity here, simply a man who has ambition, has been given a opportunity to run with it.

Chris Matthews – for whom politics is more spectator sport than tool box - has gone so far as to award Burris something called the “Hardball Award” for being “gutsy” and held him up as an example to children who should “stand up and demand” something that they want - if they believe it is theirs. I am not sure what Matthew’s point is, really. The Burris situation does not have any real parallels in the everyday world. It would be a stretch to claim that Burris had a fire in his belly for the seat. What we do know is that Blagojevich is not a capricious man; there must be something in it for him to move this particular name through the ranks. Given the governor’s shameless race-baiting – demonstrated by his “spontaneous” calling up of the Black-Panther-turned congressman Bobby Rush at his first press conference following the indictment - it is probable that the color of Burris’ skin played as much of a role in his selection as did the content of his character. Thus, in the rhetoric of the corrupted executive he equates his own tribulations with the historic victimization of blacks in America. Nice try. It’s 2009. All bets are off when you’ve got a majority of white Americans – many of whom probably still fear young black men – saying yes to a man named Obama.

Nonetheless, such is politics in our culture that being called to service in government is viewed more as a dodgy career path than a kind of benevolent draft. Politicians are corrupted by money because their jobs actually don’t pay as much as the law partnerships they had to give up. Burris, hopefully, has made enough money in his time that he can accept the position of junior Senator without regard for anything other than a desire to serve. It is important to give people a chance to rise to our highest ideals rather than to assume they will always cow to their basest instincts.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Burris is clearly a narcissist. What else can you say about a man who had “Trailblazer” etched into his massive tombstone along with highlights from his résumé? (Again with the comptrolling!) This narcissism may be a kind of defense against accusations that he is what he is, a political washout. But, again, none of this should matter. In two-years time the people of Illinois will elect a “real” Senator to represent them – presumably the same people who voted FOR Rob Blagojevich, but I digress. In the meantime, Burris will keep the seat tidy (thereby filling in some of the gray-space on his tomb wall) and do his part as an Obama-believer. He may well attempt to run or he may be blown out of the water in the primaries; incumbency under these circumstances is probably not a boon. For Burris, 2009 is simply the year when his luck and his ambition aligned. Would that we could all partake of such fortune.

But I suppose my point here is not merely about Burris’ luck. It is about his guile. There is something very American about not being kowtowed by the mansions of power, especially considering Burris’ anonymity in the national scene until December of 2008. Here was a man who, rather than saying “yes I can,” said “why the hell not?” and “try and stop me!” That he did so with a degree of civility and a lack of the crazies only adds to his ethos, and his plausibility.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Harley Race: Masochistic Fantasy and Pro Wrestling

At 65, retired professional wrestler Harley Race (6’ 3, 240 pounds) still looks like grandfather-kick ass. His face resembles a plate of steak and eggs with a side of uncooked pork sausage. In his glory years in the 1970s and early 80s, Race wore his mutton chops connected to his moustache, the “commodore” look. Combined with his kinky, widow-peaked hair line, Race just about managed to stand our among the blond muscle men and pretty boys of the era. Race is not pretty. Even when he was “Handsome” Harley Race in the mid-sixties with a shorn kisser and bad bleach job, he still appeared much as he does today – a slightly craggy, slightly blank, slightly gormless bricklayer,

His body has been a remarkably consistent vehicle for him since his debut nearly half-a-century ago. The torso is long, thick, and shaped as though extruded from a large, municipal water pipe. He is not fat, but there is very little in the way of definition. His arms and legs are cardboard tubes tapering into stubs of ham. Harley Race is built for pro-wrestling as though it were a “real” competitive sport. Meaning, if he were to take on real or “shoot” matches, he could stand up to 60 minutes of being beaten about and probably win. (He is a talented “hooker,” although never an amateur athlete.). As it stands, Race’s body is, in some ways, overqualified. Hitting Race with a fist to his midsection must be like punching a water bed filled with sand.

Watching archive matches of his best days, the more intense episodes involve his face getting significantly bloodied. The odd thing, it didn’t seem an unnatural “look” for him. The blood added definition, like a coat of lacquer. His movements, too, suggest a something other than a human being going through the motions of exercise. He was clumpy but also lithe. When he used his big knee on the head of an opponent the feat was performed as if by hydraulics and pulleys; a snap of the tendon against ligament, driven by coiled hunks of farm muscle. The motions were cruel the way threshing machines can be cruel, which is to say that the malice was in the interpretation of the act rather than the intention.

Often Race would be brought forward to fight a man on the other side of the flamboyance scale, often a blond like Ric Flair or Dusty Rhodes. The contrast could not have been more stark. Race’s lack of apparent charisma, when placed alongside the candied radiance of the sons of Gorgeous George (even if Dusty seemed to have a body constructed from white trash bags filled with whipped cream), seemed to transform into something else. An aura of raw, joyless earnestness acted as an inner beacon to call attention to his presence. The average slob might be hard-pressed not to root for Race on some level. He would break the pretty face or tear the gold away from the underserved. A mean, cheating braggart though he may be, Race was that house-cleaning, hell-fire reformation preacher who would make you feel remorse for your sins, in this case, the sin of pride, the sin of glamour represented by the elegantly robed Flair.

Race is that part of American culture that, while admitting to large portion of the arrogance of manifest destiny, abhors anything that smacks of effeminate leisure. Watch a Race promo from the 1980s. The gargling, exasperate Race searches, struggles for, and usually fails to find the correct words. Why? He is not a man of words. Words themselves are products of the same leisure culture that created the hated Flair. In this regard, Race was unusual among the various world champions in the 80s. Consider Flair, Hogan, Bockwinkle, or the painfully uncharismatic champions like Backlund and Gagne, each had a clear, pathos-driven rhetoric which could get at the heart of his character Flair was the classic braggadocio; Hogan, a circus muscle man with some adolescent concept of “cool”; Bockwinkle was the man above it all, the businessman grappler. But Race couldn’t sell those angles. Clearly uncomfortable with a mic in front of him, Race would chew on words, twist and writhe trying to get the sentences to happen. In an industry where the promotional interview is as important as the ring work, Race seemed to have no recourse but to slightly hyper-ventilate or to repeat previous utterances.

A common theme in a Race promo is money. Often his complaints revolved around money being extracted from him, either by the promotion or a wrestler in particular. One particularly amusing promo has Race standing before a suitcase filled with money and his championship belt. He announces that he will give $25,000 to anyone who could end the career of rival Ric Flair. At one point he goes so far as to beg “Would someone take the damn money!” The money aspect may have been a genuine concern. As wrestling was a regional affair prior to the 1990s, Race would have had to spend 200-plus days on the road every year to earn anything resembling the income he (and other champions) bragged about. These were the days before nation-wide exposure and big endorsement contracts provided the professional wrestler with something resembling wealth. Indeed, the working class demographic of the professional wrestling fan is a well known talking point among pop culture analysts. Race’s appeal over the years has to do with the fact that he represents a non-fantasy; a big, strong, hunk muscle, of no discernable shape or form and allied with bad intentions, aimed at the very fantasies represented by the “pretty-boys” and egoists who make up the rosters of most pro wrestling organizations.

Who roots for Harley Race, then? Perhaps no one. He is the perennial heal, but not the kind that fans like. He’s not Roddy Piper or George Steel – essentially assholes and animals. He is a different sort of heel, a guy who would probably prefer to wrestle without so many fans around. It’s not that he has contempt for them (as the conventional heel does) and he isn’t necessarily malicious. Race simply doesn’t seem to play the game this way. And fans both resent and admire this trait. They want to see him beat, but paradoxically, they also like to see him beat others. Why? The dark side of the mirror for any wrestling fan will display that part of the ego which holds himself in contempt; the side that knows they are indulging in an extended fantasy of competition; the side that realizes that the inherent misogyny, racism, homophobia and class exploitation which feeds his fantasies are manufactured by a few businessmen with an eye towards appealing to the lowest common denominator. Harley Race exposed that aspect of their personality and exorcised it nightly in the ring, not for love of the sport, but for want of a kind of Puritan justice. against perceived “soft living” or libertinism. Likewise, his destruction in the ring allowed for the possibility of unrestrained freedom and provided a hedge against inflexible behavior. In short, Race represented a creative space wherein the id and super-ego of the wrestling fan could be negotiated.

Since his hey-day in the 1970s and 80s, Race’s reputation has diminished after a laughable but seemingly necessary period in the WWE (ne: WWF). Race had wrestled a handful of matches for the promotion in the past – notably, a “unification” bout with WWF champion Bob Backlund – but had never fully committed to the ambitious company. Nearing the end of the in-ring career, Race must have considered the WWE the last unconquered territory of his seemingly ubiquitous career . However, the Race story line for the WWE ignored the man’s history and instead fashioned a ludicrous fiction about Race being the “King” of wrestling. Aside from the lack of pedigree (hasn’t Jerry Lawler had claim to the title for thirty years?) the angle simply did not fit Race. Better that he be referred to as “Hellfire” Harley so that he might shame and castigate the new generation of pretty boys and egoists.