Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Jon Hunts Manliness, On His Harley and Off

The soon-to-be officially declared candidate for president is in Hog heaven.
    The most telling memory I have of Jon Huntsman Jr.'s tenure as governor is a remark he made during one of his weekly televised news conferences on KUED.
    He was bragging that there were currently more than 50,000 out-of-town visitors in the area -- here for Sundance, the Outdoor Retailers Convention and one other national gathering -- who were "getting a taste" of Utah's many offerings, its beauty and its "quality of life."
    He said this in his typically vainglorious fashion, despite the fact that for weeks we had been engulfed in the unhealthiest air in the nation -- a toxic, putrid, gray omnipresence that extended from Logan to Provo.
    This horrific inversion had made national news several times and would surely be a huge embarrassment to any chief executive who was in touch with reality.
     I wondered: Does he ever look out the window? Does he live in some sort of privileged crystalline dome that insulates him from the hardships that the non-billionaire masses must endure?
    Is he willfully blind, or does he just think we’re  stupid?
The temple rose above the inversion, but most of us were stuck in it.

    The fact that he announced yesterday he is soon "going to announce" his candidacy for president -- and that he hadn't even told his wife, who was sitting in the audience, looking shocked -- tells us something about his character as well as his marriage.
   ( UPDATE November 4, 2013: A new book portrays Huntsmans failed campaign as "a mess from the start: drowning in debt, scarred from infighting and led by a candidate unwilling to take the hard jabs needed to draw attention."
     "Double Down: Game Change 2012," is by well-known journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.
    "As autumn unfolded," the book’s authors write, "Huntsman’s advisers finally, fully came to dismiss their candidate as a lazy, whiny wuss. Huntsman came to disdain his adjutants as soulless mercenaries.")

    His 2011 online campaign ad was rather puzzling. Shot from a helicopter, it shows a bold, solitary guy roaring through Monument Valley on a motor cross bike. The only "substance" in the ad is a reference to Jon's cool taste in music. Huntsman was not driving the bike, however. As Time magazine's Michael Scherer asks: "What kind of presidential candidate pays to have an ad man shoot bucolic shots of the rust-colored Utah wilderness with some guy on an off-road bike? Answer: The same kind of candidate who, at the age of 51, still brags that his high school hair band was called “Wizard.”
    Jon Huntsman Jr. shouldn’t be president, but I would  vote for him to  play one on TV.
    I do think, though, that he should play a scheming, evil version. Look at the eyes, and you'll know what I'm talking about. He's no flawed-but-lovable Martin Sheen, that's for sure!
    Lord knows how many years he’s been rehearsing in front of the mirror for the part of commander-in-chief. He loves the camera, and, as long as it’s rolling, he knows how to project that executive virility needed for a credible performance.
    As the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics said on June 13, “He’s certainly got the style part down.”

    If I had to choose one word to describe Huntsman it would be “poseur.” He is all about appearances. He is well-practiced in looking utterly wise and supremely confident, and he’s found a good role model, from somewhere, in the art of appearing debonair.
    It may well have been the Pierce Brosnan incarnation of James Bond.
    Jon and Pierce share an insouciance -- a chronic mild amusement -- that comes from knowing this is all just a show.
     Huntsman knows when to cock his head, raise or lower his chin, and enlist his eyebrows for various effects, and he’s mastered the art of projecting a genteel form of machismo. It is a machismo that did not come easily to a pretty-boy child of privilege, but he worked hard at it, and he incorporated “being a man”  into the total package reasonably well. No wonder he opposes a ban on assault rifles. They are totally fun!
    According to The New Republic, “His office is a shrine to extreme sports and motocross racing, adorned with model motorcycles and photos of a mud-caked Huntsman riding a dirt bike. Getting dirty and hanging out with roughnecks is certainly one way to prove that, despite being the son of one of the richest and most politically connected men in Utah, you're a regular guy."
    You dirty guy, you! You know you hate it. Why don't you go back to playing squash in your tidy whites at the club?
    Huntsman pumps iron. He digs Harleys. He rocks and rolls. He sired five children, for heaven’s sake! And then, in a ravishing gesture of political foresight, he strategically adopted a child from each of the two countries that are becoming our greatest competitive adversaries, China and India.
    In the meantime, Huntsman Corp. has become a major investor in China, with at least five manufacturing facilities, according to the Wall Street Journal. And Bloomberg News reports that Huntsman Corp.’s revenue in China surged 57 percent from 2009 to 2010 during Jon's ambassadorship. Huntsman Corp.'s expansion in the world’s second-largest economy offers a target for rivals when U.S. unemployment is shaping the 2012 presidential race, Bloomberg ads..
    Bravo, Jon! Checkmate! (although isn’t it a bit creepy, self-indulgent and irresponsible in this day and age to have seven kids? Or even five?) Maybe the next one should be from Brazil?
    According to U.S. News & World Report, he loves taking the kids out "dinking" -- his word for patronizing junk food restaurants. Isn't that a bad word, combined with bad parenting?

    Before he left China, after serving as ambassador for only 18 months (having earlier abandoned the Utah governorship, also before fulfilling his term), he invited local reporters to the embassy and began by telling them how his adopted Chinese daughter was born in the Year of the Rabbit. How relevant! Or something! Exploitative. perhaps?
    I regularly watched Huntsman’s  news conferences when he was governor, not to be informed -- I had little faith in anything he said -- but because I found his devil-may-care showmanship to be positively riveting.

    He seemed to love these staged interactions (media critics call them “pseudo events”), as if they were some sort of “tag” in which he was “it,” and he never got caught, or even broke a sweat. Or maybe they were more like a ping-pong game, with eight people against Jon, and he just sat their gloating like Mr. Burns on "The Simpsons,"  and smashed ‘em all right back at the reporters -- who had come with such substantive intentions, and would now depart with little to write about.
    I was so stunned that he kept getting away with it that I couldn’t change the channel. It was mesmerizing. His ego, which lurks just behind his pretense of being a humble, sober, open-minded and even-handed public servant, is spectacular. His brow furrows with seriousness, but right below it is the wry smirk of a man who knows he can conjure the words to defuse or deflect any question, while in fact not answering it at all.
    This is such a gas, he can hardly contain himself, People are simply left there drowning in his intellect-defying figures of speech and in the jargon of business, public administration and politics.

    Viewers of the press conferences, if they actually cared about the answers to the reporters’ questions, were left dumbstruck, wracking their brains to decipher what, if anything, had just been said. No one -- certainly not the media -- seemed inclined to parse his easygoing, reassuring answers to tough questions. His message was always, “It’s being taken care of. I’m on top of it.” The air went out of the room yet again.
    I think Huntsman must have learned one new word for each press conference, which he used to death and then never used again. My favorite was “iteration.”   
    Huntsman is so totally relaxed, man, because he’s got everything covered -- just ask him. He remains totally unflappable, irrespective of what is going on outside the cool, silvery domain of his body.
    He is never caught off guard. He is never embarrassed or uncertain. Smugness is his armor. He is like a beautifully designed robot who comes complete with pre-programmed gestures and commentary: "moving forward," "at the end of the day," "sooner rather than later."
  He was born with a silver circuit board in his head. All he has to do is squint slightly and the correct byte is transmitted directly to his mouth. He can’t even feel it. His actual flesh-and-blood brain is doing god-knows-what -- probably reminiscing about such thrilling experiences as getting to hang out with the stars of “High School Musical.”
    Huntsman is in love with himself. His movie-star poses are all over the Internet, with that perfect hair, the lavender scarf tossed around his neck, his matinee idol smile. He has cut back a bit on his use of self-tanning products following a considerable amount of national media ridicule, but he can’t resist it entirely, and it does fortify his image of glowing vigor.

    Until Tuesday, he had  32 pictures of himself on his own Facebook page, which looked like a model‘s portfolio. They forgot, though, to post the one of him at the podium, nominating Sarah Palin to be the GOP’s candidate for vice president.
    Today there are fewer of the high-fashion head shots on his Facebook page, but there‘s more snark. It all seems a bit mean-spirited for a man who claims to be “spiritual” (as opposed to being a Mormon, which you can be “to varying degrees“), and who isn’t even a formally declared candidate yet.
    There is a picture of him -- looking ravishing and revved up astride his huge Harley -- that is captioned  “presidential hopeful,” while next to him is a photo of Barack Obama, looking kind of  scrawny and clueless on a bicycle, that is is captioned  “presidential hopeless.” Huntsman is being an ass before he even jumps into the ring.
    There is also a very creepy feature on his Facebook page, which is made to appear like an entry from a dictionary. The definition of “presidential” is equated with him and his qualities, alongside his photo, while the definitions for “unpresidential” include the phrase “see also ‘Obama‘.”
    A sort of bookmark format is also highlighted on his personal Facebook page to declare that he is indeed the president, having assumed office in January, 2013, and disingenuously cites Wikipedia as its source.
    He  recently purchased a $3.6 million home in a fashionable D.C. neighborhood, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, which should provide a cozy base of operation until the whole messy election thing is over. 
    It is clear: He thinks he is a genius. He thinks he is a master of the universe. His level of self-satisfaction is positively dazzling.
     And Utahns were, in fact, so positively dazzled that they failed to see the mess he was making of the state. His penultimate priority was GROWTH. It was as if the growth of the state made him larger and more manly. The state became his body, and he wanted to PUMP IT UP!
    He wanted whatever it took to “put us on the map,” because everything that could make the state bigger or more alluring enlarged his stature. He wanted national attention, any way, anyhow, because it was great publicity for him. He wanted MORE MORE, MORE.
    Every bit of “more” was a feather in his cap. It would be his successors who would be left to deal with the aftermath. He wanted MORE PEOPLE to move here to “expand the tax base,” when our existing overpopulation has already devastated the quality of life he claims to value so much. He loved those “fastest growing” lists because they proved that more and more people were being irresistibly drawn to the domain over which he magisterially presided.
Is this 'quality of life,' or what?
    Traffic is terrible already, and he wants MORE PEOPLE. Our beautiful green space has been eaten alive by one prison-like apartment complex or condo community after another. He wants MORE INDUSTRY and more jobs to “grow the economy,” when all they do is oblige us to build more highways, schools and other infrastructure and to cope with more pollution.
    He refers constantly to the beauty of our landscape and to our "crystal-clear blue skies," while the American Lung Association gives our air quality an "F" grade -- for both particulates and ozone -- year after year.
    He is all for using tens of millions of our tax dollars to entice corporations, conventions, tourists and movie-makers to the state while education and social services go down the tubes. He loved it when we were named the best state in which to do business, failing to mention that our cheap labor, tax breaks and lax regulation  helped seal the deal. He describes himself as “business friendly,” and he certainly is.
    But his  handouts went beyond friendliness and became favoritism. He is business friendly -- they're his kind of people -- but he is not labor friendly. Low wages and the working poor don't seem to be on his map.
    He made a huge deal of the tax cuts he implemented during the nation’s economic boom years, but he didn’t say much about how he increased per capita spending at about 10 percent annually during his tenure, according to the Cato Institute, which refers to him as a “conservative-technocrat optimist.“
    He famously appeared -- all hunked up in a leather jacket and with a ‘wide stance” -- in ads promoting the Western Climate Initiative and the group Environmental Defense.
    These were the PR shenanigans of a smug and callous politician who did virtually everything possible to make our air quality and quality of life in general worse. And when it came right down to actually DOING cap and trade, which he very publicly supported, he backed away, saying the time wasn’t right.   
    "We just, we find ourselves in a total funk these days," he recently remarked on the Hugh Hewitt show. "We’re dispirited, we’re dejected. We’ve got to get back on our feet and be reminded about what has made us great over and over and over again."
    Exactly what is it that has made us great, Jon? I very much doubt that it was someone like you.