Sunday, January 25, 2009

What makes a Gentleman?

I cross-posted my entry about Michelle Obama's outfits at IBA, which triggered off an interesting discussion that merits further elaboration here.

It is apparent, that Barack Obama has good taste (and either the daughters come after their father or he is the one who chooses their dresses, not sartorially-callenged Michelle). His outfit is impeccable and I went so far in the IBA comment section as to say that he appears to be, from his attitude, bearing, looks and poise, more of a gentleman than any other American president I remember in my lifetime. I later had to admit that I forgot Bush Father, who is in the same class.

Of course, and now the usual disclaimer is in order, my following assessment has nothing to do with the former presidents' politics, not even whether I like them or not. It isn't either, an assessment of those men's individual character, apart from the cases where it clearly influences the physiognomy. Some of those whom I do not consider gentlemen by looks may clearly be or have been, by their personalities. I hopes this clarification helps.

So here we go: The first American president during my lifetime, but whom I do not remember having ever seen on television (we got TV in 1956, if I remember correctly and I was hardly ever allowed to watch it), is Dwight D. Eisenhower. A gentleman? Not quite. To me he looks like the poster boy of a German non-commissioned officer of the old school.

John F. Kennedy? Too much teeth, too much of an upstart, but he was certainly not without "class".

Lyndon B. Johnson? Awmegawd! He is best described by three words: common, common and common.

Richard Nixon? Had "crook" and "horrible little man" written all over him.

Gerald Ford? Not quite. Maybe he is just "too American" for me to appreciate his appearance fairly. He resembles Eisenhower more than just a little bit, who, too, just falls short of being a gentleman in my book.

Jimmy Carter? The very epitome of a horrible little man.

Ronald Reagan? To me, he comes across as a nice man of working class origin. Not as an upstart like Kennedy, but like somebody who has worked (physically too) long and hard to acquire status and conducts himself dignifiedly, but no, not like a gentleman.

George H. W. Bush? He fits the bill. Nice, polished, well dressed and not too "aggressively American" for this European's liking.

Bill Clinton? Add a "dirty old" to the "horrible little man". Again, it's written all over his smug face.

George W. Bush? You must be joking! Not even the artist who painted his official portrait managed to quite wipe that moronic look off his face. I even don't totally dislike the man, but I haven't, not even once in eight years, seen a picture where he does NOT look like an idiot. Here is a roster of all American presidents together with their portraits.

Barack Obama? Yes, definitely. He is extraordinarily favoured by nature with his tall and slim physique and a pleasant mixture of his white and black genes, and, no doubt, he knows how to make the best of it.

After much soul-seeking, it seems that my European background influences my judgement considerably. There are certain social markers one can not understand if one hasn't been brought up within a culture. So, for explanatory purposes, there follow some European dignitaries, and I wonder whether Americans will agree:

Prince Charles? Yes, in an upper-class-twit-of-the-year-contest-winner sort of way. Prince Andrew? He has written "bully" all over his face and Prince Edward is painfully insignificant. So no and maybe.

Their father? As much as I hate to admit it: Yes!

King Juan Carlos of Spain: Perfect, in and out of uniform:

To prove that is is not JUST a princely parentage that maketh a gentleman, here a picture of the Habsburg family, celebrating Archduke Otto's 95th birthday:

Otto would be Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation or at least Emperor of Austria if the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation still existed or if Austria hadn't abolished the monarchy in 1919 and he and his family look like a bunch of trolls.

And to prove, reversely, that even a man from the humblest of origins can manage to look like a gentleman I introduce former chancellor Gerhard Schröder here.

And to finish on a nice, ghost-trainy notion, here we have Vladimir Putin and Nicholas Sarkozy:

If the term "horrible little man" wouldn't already exist, it ought to be invented for "Sarko". (Gosh, aren't those yobs BORN with a mobile phone glued to one of their ears?) Putin? Markedly better, weren't it for his choice of suits one size too small and the vulpine KGB-look on his face.

To summarize, a "good family" and education helps, as does dress-sense, a tall and slim physique and - even more - a clean-cut face and apparent intelligence. There are, however, clowns from old and "good" families, intelligent, good-looking men who do not, or not quite, make it, as there are well-dressed yobs. At the end of the day, I don't have an answer to my own question.

Oh yes, I'd like to add one thing: NEVER EVER have an obscene amount of hair if you want to look like a gentleman, specifically if you are past your first youth. Bill Clinton and John Kerry are excellent examples. My mother calls it "child molester hairdo", and although I am not quite sure what she means (neither does she), it seems to fit in an eerie, unexplainable sort of way.

6 Comment(s):

Pastorius said...

That's a fascinating and wholly un-American way of looking at life.

It would seem to me Reagan would be viewed as the epitome of the American gentleman.

Here, I'll make a statement you and your European friends can make fun of:

Intelligence is not as highly valued in America as it is in Europe.

Bwa ha ha ha ha!

By the way, George Bush and Barack Obama are of the same approximate intelligence, if you take IQ as a legitimate measure
I'm not sure about Reagan.

But, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon were clearly the most intelligent Presidents we've had in my lifetime.

This subject gets funnier the more I talk about it.

The_Editrix said...

Pastorius, I am sure Reagan WAS the epitome of the American gentleman. However, here we come to people from different cultures, who are unable to appreciate the more subtle social markers of another culture.

It is not so, as if there weren't any European cross-cultural borders. The German "Herr" and the English "gentleman" have relatively little in common, apart from a certain class aspect.

As for intelligence, I am informed about Bush's and Nixon's high IQs. However, I wrote "apparent intelligence". Nobody will accuse them of having intelligence written all over their faces. Obama has.

I never thought of the (yes!) fact that we value intelligence probably higher than you do in America. In Germany we have a culture of non-recognition of qualities like decency, fairness, courage, trust and social skills. I think the English are more on your side, but not entirely.

I noticed, too, that an Englishman will basically believe what you are telling him until the opposite is proven. A German will basically not believe what you are telling him and it will be very hard to convince him to do so. That creates an entirely different outlook on life and culture. I don't know enough Americans to make a fair statement about them.

But yes, this gentleman-discussion is both, funny and enlightening.

Moshea bat Abraham said...

I have to disagree. Obama is well dressed, yes, but his appearance strikes me as quite sinister. I don't say that because he's black - I would have been delighted to vote for Condi. And I don't say that because he's a Democrat - I dislike Democrats intensely, but none other has ever struck me with that same air of menace.

Hopefully this is simply a quirk of his physical appearance and not a sign of his actual character.

The_Editrix said...

I fully agree. To me, he looks sinister as well (and not because of his race either). I even think he IS sinister. He creeps me out, in fact. But that doesn't mean that he does NOT look like a gentleman, at least to me. Looking sinister is nothing that excludes one from looking like a gentleman in the sense I used the term in this blog entry.

Hey, think Count Dracula! ;-)

Pastorius said...

Hi Editrix,
Let me be clear about this; I think there is something to be said for the European notion of a gentleman. We have such an abhorrence of tradition here in America that everyone is a self-made man in the sense of manners and respect for authority. Because of that, even our leaders, the most educated and informed among us will often believe completely crazy things, or in many cases they will resort to disgusting behavior to get their way.

An example of this is Obama using his middle-finger to scratch his nose when someone asked him what he thought of Hilary Clinton. Or, John Kerry suggesting that there was reason to wonder whether there may have been U.S. government involvement in 9/11. John Kerry knows very well that there was not such involvement, but because there are few rules in American society, our leaders resort to Demagoguery, even when it risks the stability of our society.

That being said, an awful lot of gentlemen were involved in the bad behavior which Europe has been engaged in over the years.

It's interesting to me that both of you think Obama looks sinister. He looks like an intelligent and decent man to me. But, there is something terribly distant about him. I wonder if that's what you mean by sinister.

By the way, just because I say he looks intelligent and decent, I do not mean to say that I believe he is decent. He will show us whether he is or not. I'm waiting to see. So far, it doesn't look very good.

The_Editrix said...

"...because there are few rules in American society, our leaders resort to Demagoguery, even when it risks the stability of our society."

An interesting point of view. I have never seen it like that. I think the basic, the root-difference between America and Europe is that you have overcome the estate system. In fact, the first Americans fled from Europe to overcome it and the religious bigotry that went with it. A lot of rules have been jettisoned in the process, not all of them bad, as Moshea, the monarchist, will doubtlessly affirm.

"That being said, an awful lot of gentlemen were involved in the bad behavior which Europe has been engaged in over the years."

No doubt and I can only say that my definition of a gentleman IN THIS SPECIFIC ENTRY was as shallow as a definition can possibly be.

As for Obama coming across as sinister: Men tend to be oblivious to such things. Women are either very profound or very shallow, but if somebody is bound to notice anything like that it will be a woman. I sometimes see the sinister side, and sometimes the decent one. The sinister one increasingly. Whether that is because Obama switches from decent to sinister and vice versa or because I am switching in turns from shallow to profound I don't know.