Heeeeere’s Barack!: On sidekicks, new stars, and Tony Blair in a plaid sports coat…
Last night, Conan O’Brien offered a tribute to Ed McMahon, longtime sidekick to his predecessor Johnny Carson. McMahon died yesterday and was eulogized in today’s New York Times as the “top second banana.” O’Brien commented on how, as a great number two guy, Ed always knew just when to step in and when to step ...
Last night, Conan O’Brien offered a tribute to Ed McMahon, longtime sidekick to his predecessor Johnny Carson. McMahon died yesterday and was eulogized in today’s New York Times as the “top second banana.” O’Brien commented on how, as a great number two guy, Ed always knew just when to step in and when to step back and leave the spotlight to the headliner. He was completely in tune with Carson and together they formed a seamless whole. Naturally, mulling this, my thoughts turned to England and the current situation in Iran.
Sidekicks have, of course, long played a central role in the history of international affairs. Adolf had Benito. Nikita had Fidel. Cheney had Bush. Today, Hugo has Evo.
Such sidekicks are employed in multiple ways. Sometimes they simply stand by the star for support, sending the message that the views the big guy expresses are more than the ideas of one nation, that they drive a movement, an alliance or an axis. Sometimes they play bad cop to the good cop. Sometimes they are the fall guys when the star can’t afford to take the hit. Sometimes, they offer comic relief. Sometimes, they handle the secondary chores, like invading British Somaliland when you just don’t have the time to do it yourself. And on certain occasions, sidekicks even offer benefits to one’s enemies or rivals, giving them a secondary target at which to direct everything from invective to troops, depending on the circumstances.
Of course, in the international affairs business, there have been few modern stars that have shined quite so brightly for so long as the United States. As a consequence, we have over the years been joined on stage by a panoply of Ed McMahons. Sometimes they played with us only on regional stages, like Vietnam or Israel. Some have played the role well in countless circumstances, like Canada.
But there have been no sidekicks as enduring or as useful in modern international affairs as the U.K. has been to the United States. You can almost see British prime ministers sitting on the couch laughing while their respective U.S. presidents cracked wise behind the big desk. Put a plaid sports coat on Tony Blair and it’s clear: He was the Ed McMahon of the Iraq War.
The trick is that as the headliner changes, so too does the role of the sidekick. Affable Ronald Reagan needed edgy Margaret Thatcher, the Joan Rivers of British politics. Bland George H.W. Bush required even blander John Major. Blair managed to adjust his role as the submissive sophisticate to suit the two bubbas with whom he worked.
The most recent twist in this enduring relationship has been playing out in Iran these past few weeks. There, with Barack Obama’s United States no longer quite so hate-able as Bush’s (or Carter’s for that matter), and with Obama inclined to pursue a more aloof strategy, the U.K. has started playing a different part. On the one hand, it has been more out in front in its criticism of the Iranians. And on the other, the British have assumed the role of preferred Western target for the Tehran leadership. They are the substitute villain, the Rather Good Satan standing in while the Great One tries a different approach for a change.
Of course, for sidekicks as for the rest of the world, the transition from Bush to Obama has been seismic and deeply challenging. The host has somehow gone from being a somewhat less sophisticated version of Jeff Foxworthy (“you know your president is a redneck when he can be compared to a Blue Collar Comedy tour star”) to being the love child of Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley.
Britain has ably stepped up, perhaps recognizing that it is in their interest and the planet’s to have a headliner of the western world who neither delivers nor takes all the punch lines. So too, at least in terms of their stance on the Iran issue, have Germany and France. In fact, throughout the Obama term, the roles played by Angela Merkel (acerbic, more independent, critical of the United States on financial markets reform) and Nicolas Sarkozy (pushing for greater market reform too, but also both more visible and more visibly supportive of the U.S. than any recent French leader), have also evolved into something new. This is clearly due in large part to who they are…but it is also due to a changed dynamic on the international stage thanks to the very different nature of the role sought and played by Obama and the United States.
This effect extends further, of course. Enemies and those with competing offerings find they have to play a different role as well thanks to the arrival of Obama on the scene. Those whose shtick has been anti-American bluster find it doesn’t play as well as it did back when George Bush made anti-Americanism easy. The case in point here may well be Ahmadinejad…although Hugo Chavez and others ought to pay close attention here. As in late night comedy…as in everything that happens on any stage…the play is about the relationships between the players. Change one and you fundamentally change the chemistry among all of them.
In fact, this chemistry factor may be the single greatest foreign policy change of the first half year of the Obama era. (After all, many of his policies are actually not that different from what Bush would have or did employ.) Later, of course, the president will be judged by how he manages the complex processes of global policy. But for now, for allies and enemies alike, having a new star with a very different vibe has changed the roles of all the supporting players, second bananas and rivals alike, all of whom must to some extent play off of the new guy and who have thus been changed by his arrival whether they like it or realize it or not.
It’s sad to see a trusty old sideman like Ed McMahon go. But as for having a new guy with top billing on the world stage, the early results seem to suggest that may play very well indeed.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
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