Millennium Post

Love in times of presidential campaigns

We were so in love and so in debt, gushed Michelle Obama, and with that line she established that America, no matter how much in debt and fiscal deficit, ought to continue to be in love with Barack Obama. The love story must go on. For the love story is the story of the love, pursuit and realisation of the American Dream, and who else to vouch for that but the telegenic First Lady with the perfect credentials?

Michelle Obama was called upon to present the inaugural speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, and formally reinstate the candidature of her husband, President Obama, for a second term. Ever since she took the stage, she literally took the centrestage and salvaged Barack’s dwindling support base amongst the women and the middle class. She has offered her love story as the story of deliverance; there is a messianic ring to it. Her love is Barack’s redemption.

Michelle Obama’s love story has the quintessential ‘Made in USA’ stamp on it: it’s African-American, it’s middle-class; it’s even a bit transnational, given Barack’s trajectory traversing continents. It’s also public and domestic, modern and traditional, long-lasting and inspirational. Michelle is a feminist icon and a dream wife every man wants to take home. Heck, she has even been endorsed by Bill Clinton, who congratulated [and supported] Barack for ‘having the good sense to marry Michelle Obama.’

This is a Great American Love Story. It has a ‘happy ending.’ Or, let’s say, a ‘happy continuum,’ for it’s still a work in progress. The great mushroom cloud of a media spectacle that the Obama coupledom has become – it’s a solid achievement and perhaps the clinching factor if Obama becomes the President for a second term – has, however, obscured some of the other love stories: some of which have sprung from America, some from other parts of the world. Some of which are works of blessed literary imaginations; some that are the result of great personal tragedies.

As an antidote to Michelle’s spectacular love, and story of the Obamas, is the figure of Hillary Rodham Clinton and story of her tainted[?], disgraced[?], fouled[?] relationship with Bill Clinton. Hillary and Bill both went to Yale and worked hand in hand until he became the President of United States of America. The Clintons were a political powerhouse, but never a love story. He was caught cheating on her: it was one of the biggest sex scandals in the history of White House. But she chose to ‘stand by her husband’ and support him in dire straits.

Why’s Hillary’s love [and sacrifice] so unsung in the annals of romance? Is it because she’s a plus-sized woman, who has chosen to keep quiet about her husband’s serial infidelities? This she shares with another former First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, but the latter’s love is enshrined in the history books because of the great tragedy that ended the Kennedy affair. John F Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963 and Jacqueline had the misfortune of witnessing the murder, as she was sitting next to her husband when the incident took place. The Kennedy romance would be written in tears of gold, but no sighs would dignify the Clinton story. Romance is as much a matter of public imagination as it is an individual affair. The seed of the Great American Romance was sown when the novelist Henry James serialised
The Portrait of a Lady in The Atlantic Monthly
and published the book, his magnum opus, in 1881.

The heroine Isabel Archer is an experiment in emerging feminine sensibility, her independence and her decisions on/about love. She rejects two perfect suitors, the English Lord Warburton and the American Caspar Goodwood, only to elect a degenerate art connoisseur, the impeccably well-mannered, egotistical philistine Gilbert Osmond, who treats her like a framed painting, an exquisite furniture worthy of his collection. She earns his contempt precisely by choosing him and acting on her independently arrived decision.     

Why does Isabel continue to suffer the torment inflicted on her by Osmond? Can a super achiever like Hillary Clinton see a mirror image in Isabel Archer, in her choice to remain in a tainted love, to stay the prisoner of her freedom of choice?

This crushing weight of an unaccustomed earth, this constant torment like hissing winds of unacceptable, ill-understood truths, blacker shades of offstage horizons – this is the stuff of novels, but in life, and especially, in the media-generated public life of a celebrity first couple, there is no place for such doubts and contradictions of love.

Turning a leaf and casting a glance at Bollywood love stories, the one that is doing the rounds is of Bipasha Basu, the epitome of ‘abandonment,’ who has now risen like a phoenix. An upcoming film
starring Kareena Kapoor looks suspiciously similar to Bipasha’s life [at least what can be made out from the movie trailer that is now hogging our LCD TV screens]. Inspirational stories about rising from the ashes leave out much of the nuances and unflattering outcomes of heartbreak. But, as is the norm these days, graphic portrayals of emotional and physical abuse, perpetrated by the heartless man, or self-inflicted by the lovesick woman, are held up as cinematic realism and hallmark of good cinema.

The age of romantic reticence is truly over. No more halting love, whether in its expression, or in its repression.

Whether in politics or cinema, public declarations of love or lack thereof are the tools of the times. Feminists have decried love’s relations with power, and uses/abuses of love as an eternal power struggle. But the lived experience has been as baffling as ever. Psychologisation of love as case studies hasn’t helped either. Is Isabel Archer a borderline depressive and Gilbert Osmond a narcissist, and the pair draws their sustenance from this mutual perverted dependence on each other? I would like to believe there’s more to their understated love story. [IPA]
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