I wanted to get post-debate commentary the minute I woke up. I turned on the computer and learned first that Paul Newman died. This interrupted my news feed and made me think. Paul Newman was a true gentleman and a fighting spirit in real life, marching for civil rights in the early ‘60s, almost the first star to do so giving millions of dollars to deserving charities, and never living in desperate proximity to Hollywood, or the cult of empty vanity. He was a gentleman who utilized his stardom to contribute something lasting to our country.

Then I thought of the character that first made me love him as a screen persona. To a boy’s imagination, seeing that epitome of composure under pressure named Cool Hand Luke was more than seeing an actor. It was being introduced to a brand of Americana. Cool Hand Luke is Paul Newman as the prisoner on a southern chain gang who transcends the brutal pressure of a warden and group of guards who hate him, and remains true to his American sense of dignity.

Know your American pop culture and you are a patriot, because it is that lore that is the valuable thing we share as Americans. American pop culture gives us a sense, that alone among citizens in this world, somewhere in our country someone will produce a movie that changes our life again, or produce a CD that contains a song that becomes our anthem again. We are at our best as citizens in that way. All of America’s vital tribes, from various natives to various immigrants, weaved together like strong copper wires. Luke was a screen character of unquenchable spirit, whom all races, and all ages relate to. That character is the unquenchable American spirit itself.

Say what you will, but the truth is that particular American spirit was most certainly the spirit that Sen. Barack Obama embodied as he stood there looking across at the hectoring warden, played in “Cool Hand Luke” by the great character actor Strother Martin, and being played again on stage at Ole Miss Friday night by Sen. John McCain.

“What we got here is a failure to communicate,” Strother Martin bellowed with derision to Paul Newman’s Luke.

In real life, we had on stage a string of litanies aimed at Barack as derisive as anything Strother Martin said, but uttered in front of all Americans and in front of the entire world. Like Strother Martin, the new warden taunted “ … he doesn’t understand” … “what he fails to understand,” “ … and what he doesn’t seem to understand,” over and over. And then this candidate capped that string of words with this commentary on Obama’s thinking, “ … it’s not naïve, it’s dangerous.” Showing disrespect for an American citizen who is a candidate for president.

Was that the intention of the Republican candidate in this debate? A candidate who brags about looking into Putin’s eyes is at the same time somehow afraid or unable to look into Sen. Obama’s eyes. I cannot really know, but showing blatant disrespect to Obama during a time when Americans are looking to the new president to be a stabilizing influence is a strange thing to do. In business, which I am in, and this candidate is not, looking a person in the eye is an American tradition. Period.

I would like to think well of the Republican candidate. But from his behavior, even if he isn’t as mean as Strother Martin’s warden all the time, we have to grant that there were other times during the debate when he snickered as zanily as Uncle Fester on the classic “Adams Family” TV show, when Fester would be running off to blow stuff up.

Now, I have nothing against Fester, we all have uncles, but Americans usually don’t turn the machinery of governance over to Uncle Fester. We keep Fester in the family but Americans prefer the steadiness and grit of The Cool Hand Luke character. The steadiness and grit embodied by Obama.

We don’t want to tune into the inaugural ceremony in January and see the president-elect with a lightbulb stuck in his mouth blinking on and off. That is not what is meant by passing the torch.

Tom Brennan owns a public relations firm in Santa Monica. He loves the U.S.A. and pop culture.

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