A Not-So-Winning One-Man Show

Rich Tucker
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Posted: Apr 09, 2010 3:04 PM
A Not-So-Winning One-Man Show

Good news for the hundreds of millions of you out there who aren’t watching a show that the critics love: You’ll have at least another year to ignore “30 Rock.” Despite low ratings, NBC has renewed the show for another season.

The relative handful of us who do watch (fewer than 7 million most weeks) enjoy the program’s offbeat humor. It’s goofy, but sometimes manages to stumble across a good point. Even if it doesn’t mean to.

Consider a recent episode. Some employees learn that, because he’s a member of a secret society at Princeton, they can force their boss to leave the room by saying “twig and plums.” To show how powerful this society is, 30 Rock includes a clip of Donald Rumsfeld at a Pentagon news conference.

“Twig and plums,” yells someone in the throng (a reporter for Healthy Tree magazine, perhaps?) and Rumsfeld instantly concocts a flimsy excuse and ducks off the podium. Quite droll. The confident and powerful Defense Secretary, forced from the scene by a yahoo yelling gibberish.

Sean Hannity FREE

But the show’s choice of examples is interesting. The real Rumsfeld was an influential leader and a recognizable face. But he left office after the 2006 congressional midterm elections. That’s three-and-a-half years ago. A lifetime, in politics.

Since then, a woman has taken over a Speaker of the House, a black man has been elected president, and Barack Obama has rammed through a sweeping new entitlement program. So 30 Rock actually raises a question here: after more than a year in office, doesn’t President Obama have a powerful (and thus mockable) underling?

But that’s the real joke. He doesn’t.

Quick: name a former Bush cabinet member. Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and John Ashcroft leap to mind. You could also probably identify Condoleezza Rice and Michael Chertoff. Now: name a current cabinet member. Go ahead, take your time.

Let’s see: There’s Hillary Clinton -- is she still the Secretary of State? Oh, sure, she was at a pro-Israel gathering a few weeks back. “As I have assured you on previous occasions with large groups like this and small intimate settings,” she hollered (Clinton never seems to give a speech. She yells them). “For President Obama and for me, and for this entire administration, our commitment to Israel’s security and Israel’s future is rock solid, unwavering, enduring and forever.”

Of course, just days later, Obama made it clear he wasn’t all that committed to Israel’s current leader. He declined to dine with Prime Minister Netanyahu, instead leaving him to cool his heels at the White House. “Let me know if there is anything new,” the president reportedly said as he departed. Obama also hired special advisors to handle hot spots such as Afghanistan and Israeli-Palestinian relations (the things a secretary of state would normally be in charge of). Clinton doesn’t seem to have much pull in the administration.

Anyone else?

Think about the guy who has Rumsfeld’s job now, Robert Gates. No doubt he’s a smart and capable secretary, a Washington insider with plenty of pull. And he’s been quietly effective at the Pentagon.

But the emphasis is on “quietly.” Gates is a master of the low-key style. If he walked out in the middle of a news conference, reporters might not even notice. They’d probably just direct their questions to the general who was still on the dais.

Besides, Gates is a holdover from the Bush administration, anyway. So even if he enjoyed a strong voice, Bush would deserve as much credit for it as Obama would.

The only other cabinet members who are remotely recognizable are Eric Holder and Janet Napolitano. He’s famous for promising to give Khalid Sheikh Mohammed a civilian trial in New York City (a decision the Obama White House seems to be backing away from). She’s known for declaring that “the system worked” after a Christmas bomb attempt was foiled only by the (alleged) bomber’s incompetence.

So while Bush was mocked for being an intellectual lightweight, he was confident enough to hire well-known advisors and give them the freedom to make important decisions. His major mistakes (Medicare Part D, ever larger federal budgets) came about because he was trying to follow Karl Rove’s (another recognizable figure) dream and build a lasting Republican majority.

For Obama, the presidency is all about him. “We are the change that we seek,” he declared during the campaign. Even his signature achievement was all about him.

“The House’s passage of health care legislation late Sunday night assures that whatever the ultimate cost, President Obama will go down in history as one of the handful of presidents who found a way to reshape the nation’s social welfare system,” began a story in The New York Times on March 21. Of course, the law may well be “political suicide for his party,” that story went on to note. It isn’t obvious that Obama cares.

Like the Bush administration, 30 Rock is an ensemble production, with several familiar faces in starring roles. The Obama administration, by contrast, is a one-man show. And those don’t tend to remain popular quite as long.