Saturday, August 08, 2009

Beer Summits and All-Star Games

It's been a little more than a week since the term "beer summit" has entered our national lexicon. I was fascinated with the occurrence of President Obama inviting Henry Louis Gates and Joseph Crawley over to the White House, primarily because it struck me as a scenario that one would expect to never advance past the hypothetical stage. I feel like I know a little about what I'm talking about here, because anyone who has read this blog with any degree of frequency knows that I habitually float out hypothetical proposals. And though I happen to think I have some pretty good ideas (sometimes), I would be shocked if some of these proposals ever came to pass. The idea of having a couple of high-profile controversial figures over to the White House for beers seems to me the type of thing a blogger would propose, not something that would actually happen.

Quite often, good ideas are often simple ones, the kind of solutions to problems that a child could come up with. As an example, picture a group of kids playing a whiffleball game. The score is tied after 11 innings, and it's getting dark fast. They've got to figure out some creative way to end this game and declare a winner. A home run derby strikes me as the most likely solution, but a case could be made for some other possible methods to pursue. In the end, who doesn't think that the kids would come up with something?

Yet when confronted with a similar dilemma (lack of pitchers instead of darkness) in 2002 at the Major League All-Star game, the commissioner literally threw up his hands. The game was declared a tie, and no one went home happy.

So what is it that allows for creative ideas to flourish among kids in a backyard, where inventiveness is stifled in a Major League ballpark? Obviously, it is that there are no real stakes involved in the former situation, and the kids are not hemmed in by fear of critical backlash. Indeed, Major League Baseball has suffered some criticism for the safeguard they put in place after the 2002 season to prevent a re-occurrence of the problem, a rule that the winning league in the All-Star game gets home field advantage in the World Series. But overall, the negativity inspired by the move is counterbalanced by those who like the idea, and in any event, from a P.R. standpoint it sure beats the outcry that would ensue after another tie (which would have certainly happened in 2008).

Most corporations (and even governments) are not unlucky enough to have their crises unfold on television before an audience of millions. But I believe the same principle that hamstrung Bud Selig and company all too often prevents good, albeit new and unconventional, ideas from being implemented in those milieus. Not only is there a fear of how new ideas will be accepted by the public, there is the inertia of tradition ("we've never done anything creative to end an All-Star game, so we surely can't start now!").

Yet as far as I know, the "beer summit" is unprecedented. In theory, it was a very creative way to attempt to get some closure and resolution for a socially jarring incident. It was a goodwill gesture that one think would have widespread mass appeal. One would think the public would applaud the president for going the "regular guy" route and bypassing the now-tired public relations strategies of releasing statements and giving speeches (though it was an apparent eagerness by the White House to release a statement that arguably exacerbated the situation in the first place).

Yet for all that, in the week since the summit, the president's approval ratings have gone down. To what can this be attributed? Well, perhaps a large section of the population is unwilling to forgive the First Bartender for his initial response to the incident. Perhaps the health care debate has now overshadowed this moment. Or perhaps there is one other factor at work.

We have become accustomed to having voyeuristic rights. Survivor and other shows have taught us that we should expect to be able to sit in when "the council" is meeting. The paparazzi has given us access to intimate moments in the lives of public figures. And even on the campaign trail, politicians trade off of the media's ability to supposedly reveal the "true side" of a candidate. So I can't help but wonder if there was some public resentment, even if unconscious, over not being allowed into the party. As we watched the Gates/Cawley affair unfold like a story (and the participants themselves make for some pretty good characters), we wanted to be able to see the denouement. But instead, we were ordered to clear out of the theater.

I'm not at all advocating that there should have been cameras in the Rose Garden and microphones on the table. But I fear that because there weren't, we might now be stuck with a culture that will play for ties rather than victories.


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