In his acceptance speech last night (for his Best Actor nod in "Milk"), Sean Penn referred to President Obama as "an elegant man." He said something about being proud of this country for having the nerve to elect an elegant man as president. This struck me, and I have been thinking about it since. What does it mean to be an "elegant man"? Why choose that term, over any of the probably thousands of other possibilities, to describe Mr. Obama?
In an aesthetic sense, I get what Penn could have meant--our president is physically elegant. He's tall and slim and extraordinarily well-dressed and moves in a smooth, controlled way. This is, like so many other things, in opposition to our former president, who, no matter how high quality the suit he was in, always seemed a bit out of place being dressed up and trotted out, and struck me as sort of inherently clumsy physically as well as verbally. It is, doubtlessly, a shallow reason to be proud of having Mr. Obama as our president, but he does indeed make the country look good as a physical representative. Though elegant is not synonymous with attractive, I can't imagine that hurts either. I mean, how long has it been since we've had an attractive president? I know some people thought Bill Clinton was attractive, but he certainly never had this kind of style Mr. Obama has.
I don't think aesthetics were what Sean Penn was referring to last night, though. Looking at a room full of the (supposed) most beautiful people in the world, I don't think he was using his 30 seconds or however long they're supposed to get to comment on Mr. Obama's physique or his fashion choices. It could have been, though, a comment on finally having a president who is elegant of thought and speech. After eight years of listening to George W. Bush bumble his way through every press conference, it is a welcome change to listen to real oration again. Lyrical, powerful, elegant oration. I can also see how this would be of special value to people like those in the Oscar audience, who make their livings on words--either writing them, saying other people's and making audiences believe them, or building up the story around them.
Still, though, as politically charged as Penn is (he did spend the majority of his acceptance speech putting in a plug for same-sex marriage), I don't think he was just referring to elegance of speech, either. However, I can't make an argument, at this point, that Mr. Obama's presidency has been politically elegant. Nor am I sure I would want it to be--politics, when they are working, aren't smooth and classy. Politics that work dirty. Politics that work are scrappy and testy and brutish. Politics that work aren't elegant. And though President Obama's campaigning may have been elegant, and may be appreciated as such, I don't think his actual administration will be, at least not for a long time yet.
What, then, is it that made Penn refer to Mr. Obama as an elegant man? If it's not (or at least is only partially) his aesthetic and his oration, and it's not his politics, what is it? What does "elegant" mean in this context? Given that Penn said he was proud of his country for electing elegance, the implication is that elegance is something the country was afraid of, or had trepidation towards. Can elegance, here, refer to President Obama's education and intelligence? In another direct contrast to George W. Bush, President Obama wears his education proudly. In this sense, his elegance is that of an Old World orator, maybe not born into the privileged class, but educated in it. Thinking big thoughts, communicating big ideas, and not pretending that he prefers physical labor to intellectual (I'm remembering, here, eight years of news stories of GW Bush chopping wood in Texas when he should have been in the Oval Office doing his real job).
This, maybe as much as race, is a place where many Americans have had trouble stomaching Mr. Obama--he's just not a good ole boy. Instead, he's an elegant man. And he's the first elegant man to be president in my memory. It's not just GW who put on a façade (in his case, I think it may actually have been at least somewhat real) of preferring to be a "regular person." Clinton did it. The first Bush did it. Reagan and Carter both did it. Nixon did it. LBJ certainly did it. Going backwards, the last elegant president I can find it the one to whom Mr. Obama is so often (I think too often) compared--Kennedy. President Kennedy was an elegant man who didn't pretend not to be. He didn't chop wood on vacation, he sailed. But the America who elected Kennedy was a lot less romantic about being working class than the one who elected Mr. Obama. In electing President Obama, the voters had to overcome the fear that has been instilled in recent years of too much education and too much style. For my entire adult life, and even before that, the middle class has been taught to respect the false working man while looking down on the real one. Now that we've finally elected elegance to our highest office, is it too much to hope that the corresponding condescension towards the people our past few presidents were pretending to be will go away as well? Probably. But still, like Sean Penn, I am proud of my country for finally choosing someone to represent us who makes us look good. My president is, indeed, an elegant man.