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How beautiful, how spacious? Obama, Al Green, Newt Gingrich, and ‘The Help’

Checking in with Obama, Gingrich, and ‘The Help’

It’s only January. But the 2012 presidential campaign may have already had its most enchanting moment - and surely its hippest. President Obama sang a snatch of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together’’ at a fund-raiser at Harlem’s Apollo Theater 10 days ago. He crooned in a near-falsetto that very creditably approximated the most wondrous ’70s voice on vinyl. Just the first line. That was it. But that was more than enough. It was cool and it was funny. The singing was extremely good, too. The audience went wild.

It was one of those little media moments in which popular culture and politics embrace. You know the drill: Flashbulbs erupt. YouTube postings blossom. The monologues of talk-show hosts practically write themselves for a night or two. Then that’s that. Remember Ronald Reagan meeting a begloved and epaulette-wearing Michael Jackson at the White House, or George H.W. Bush listening with approval to Dana Carvey explaining how he imitated the president by combining the voices of Mr. Rogers and John Wayne, or Bill Clinton watching “Air Force One’’ not once but twice, or George W. Bush revealing he had “My Sharona’’ on his iPod? Probably not, since other than for connoisseurs of incongruity, such moments have the half-life of mayflies. Obama imitating Al Green feels a little different, though. It’s weighty as well as weightless.

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There’s been another recent instance in presidential politics of song lyrics coming out of a candidate’s mouth. Mitt Romney for a while was reciting lines from “America the Beautiful’’ on the campaign trail. Can an act be both sincere and calculated? That’s the way it felt listening to Romney offer up Katharine Lee Bates’s lyrics. It was an invocation of a pietistic, platitudinous patriotism: America seen as (understood as?) so many words on a needlework sampler.

The only thing unconventional about Romney’s doing this was his choosing to recite the words rather than sing them. Why? It’s not because he doesn’t sing in private. Ann Romney told The New York Times in December that when she and her husband go horseback riding, he loves “singing at the top of his lungs.’’ It’s a scene worthy of Rodgers and Hammerstein in highest high-uplift mode. Perhaps it’s Rodgers and Hammerstein Romney sings? It’s a good bet he doesn’t sing any Al Green. Though you never can tell: Donny Osmond’s covered “Let’s Stay Together.’’

Romney, seeking Republican votes, seeks to evoke a timeless America of high-minded verities and tortured syntax (“Who more than self their country loved / And mercy more than life!’’). What’s so striking about Obama singing that bit of Al Green isn’t just the demonstration of excellent musical taste. It’s the indication of how vastly different a country Obama is both comfortable and conversant with. In Green’s music, there’s a mingling of sacred and profane - the fact of his current ministry cohabiting with his pre-ministerial encounter with a flung pot of boiling grits - along with intelligence, nuance, sensuality, worldliness, exaltation, slyness, beauty, vitality. More than anything else, perhaps, there’s the implicit declaration on the singer’s part of an openness to experience. Listening to Obama imitate Al Green, we become latter-day Walt Whitmans, hearing America singing. “America the Beautiful,’’ no matter how sincerely rendered, long ago became a song sung (or recited) by rote. “Let’s Stay Together,’’ even on record, remains alive, alert, out and about - as opposed to sitting on a pedestal.

Sharing such a sensibility isn’t about race, something determined by genes. It’s about culture, something determined by preference and venturesomeness. Look at Johnny Otis. Otis, who died this month, at 90, was Greek-American. Yet through his combined work as bandleader, musician, composer, impresario, and general aficionado, he did more for the advancement of African-American popular music in California than perhaps any other single individual. As for Obama, don’t forget that his father was a Kenyan and his mother a Kansan (“as corny as Kansas in August,’’ speaking of Rodgers and Hammerstein). He was reared in Indonesia and Hawaii - as far away as you can be from Al Green’s Memphis and still reside in the United States. He grew up as much of an R&B-soul outsider as Romney did. (Well, almost.)

So it’s not hard to “get’’ Al Green - and he has the gold and platinum records to prove it - but if you do get him, you have to have some measure of sensitivity, or at least awareness, of the special place of race in this country: how the African-American experience has done more than any other element within American culture to distinguish and enrich that culture, and how the social legacy of that experience has done so much to challenge and daunt America. Which is another way of saying that no one who’s ever listened to Al Green with pleasure and appreciation might have said what Newt Gingrich did at that South Carolina debate when he defended his having referred to Obama as “the food stamp president’’ - let alone said it with such grandiose smugness.

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Gingrich may or may not have proposed an “open marriage’’ to his second wife. He definitely didn’t propose an “open society’’ in South Carolina. Who knows, maybe he’ll start referring to Obama as the “Al Green president.’’

The GOP campaign has moved on to Florida. Another campaign has now moved into higher gear, too. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave “The Help’’ four Oscar nominations on Tuesday, including one for best picture. In its well-meaning way, “The Help’’ is as oblivious to the America summoned up by Obama singing “Let’s Stay Together’’ as Gingrich is. Bien-pensant liberalism can be just as clueless as race-baiting conservatism can, and without the need to disguise its self-congratulation.

Notice how it’s Emma Stone, in the movie poster, who sits center stage and meets the viewer’s eye. Bryce Dallas Howard, representing the bad whites, looks away. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are presented as supporting players, even though their plight is the heart of the movie and their courage and endurance provide the triumph the story concludes with. The “help’’ in the title of both the movie and the Kathryn Stockett novel it’s based on refers to the black servants. But in terms of the story’s moral calculus it’s the help Stone’s character, Skeeter, offers the servants.

It’s a matter of opinion whether or not the Lord helps those who help themselves. In “The Help,’’ the source of assistance (and moral superiority) is clear. The help comes courtesy of the cute white girl with the corkscrew curls and kitty-cat eyes. Gingrich should see the movie. He could start calling Stone the food stamp actress.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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