Yes, you read that right -- Barack Obama reminds me of Joan Jett. They are the only two people I've ever known who have affirmatively chosen to give themselves a larger-than-life persona and then grew to fill it. I saw this a little better with Joan, given that she was a younger age when I knew her than Barack was when I knew him. Joan in late 1975 was a perfectly ordinary Valley girl. You would never have looked at her and thought you were seeing a future rock star. If you'd even noticed her at all you probably would have thought she was a bit of a mouse. She had brown hair cut in a competent, if unremarkable, shag and she had that slouched-over bad posture that seems to be the working uniform of the shy. In the early days of the band Kim Fowley was always yelling at her to stand up straight. When I saw the Runaways play as a three-piece band at the Whiskey, I thought they weren't terribly interesting. Both Joan and Sue Thomas (the future Michael Steele of the Bangles) were ordinary and unassuming. The only member of the band that really stood out was Sandy, and she was stuck behind her drum kit. The response to the band was a bit lackluster and it's no surprise to me that Kim decided that the band needed more of a visual standout up front. By the time I auditioned for the band they had added Cherie and Lita, both of whom grabbed your attention immediately. Joan kind of faded into the mix, and I doubt that the addition of a fifth band member, especially one who was tall, smiled and wore skirts, helped on that front. Cherie was blonde and beautiful in a sulky, fragile way, and Lita had enough personality for ten girls, not to mention lots and lots of curves. Plus they were the lead singer and lead guitarist, respectively, the two instruments that soloed on every song. Who was going to notice a shy, brown-haired rhythm guitarist with bad posture?
I don't remember which came first, the persona or the black hair, but they pretty much went hand-in-hand. One day Joan just decided to become a bad-ass rock star. She dyed her hair black, bought a leather jacket, and started scowling. She turned her slouch from that of a shy person to that of a rocker who wears her guitar slung just a bit too low. She started standing at the front of the stage and doing the most talking in interviews. It was a noticeable and calculated transformation and if it seemed a bit silly and over-the-top at first, it has served her well over time. Act like a rock star long enough, do it unfailingly and well enough, and you become one. The few times I have spoken to Joan in the years since I left the Runaways, I've found it hard to recognize the Joan I met in 1975. She wears her rock star persona like a second skin. I sometimes wonder if she is even capable of taking it off. Who knows -- maybe she goes home at night and coos baby-talk to her cats. I'd like to think so. I admire her for sticking to her guns and believing in herself, or at least for having the guts to "fake it 'til you make it." Most people give up in the face of adversity. Joan never did. I do have to wonder sometimes if that's the Joan that was always there hiding under the shyness and brown hair, like the butterfly hidden inside the caterpillar, or whether she had to give up a significant part of Joan Larkin in order to become Joan Jett. And if so, was it worth it or does transforming yourself like that make it impossible for a question like that even to make sense?
When I met Barack Obama, in our first year of law school, he had already put on his big-time politician act. He just didn't quite have it polished, and he hadn't figured out that he needed charm and humor to round out the confidence and intelligence. One of our classmates once famously noted that you could judge just how pretentious someone's remarks in class were by how high they ranked on the "Obamanometer," a term that lasted far longer than our time at law school. Obama didn't just share in class - he pontificated. He knew better than everyone else in the room, including the teachers. Or maybe even he knew he didn't know, but knew that the leader of the free world had to be able to convince others that he did. Looking back now I can see that he had already decided that he was a future president, and he was working hard at filling that suit. I wonder -- was there a moment in his life when he did the presidential equivalent of dying his hair black and putting on a leather jacket? I'm betting there was, but he'd already done it by the time I met him. I'm sure Barack as a child was perfectly ordinary, just like Joan was. Until the moment he decided that he was a star. The Barack with whom I went to school wasn't the Barack that debuted on the national stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, but the president suit was already on, even if it was still too big for him. In law school the only thing I would have voted for Obama to do would have been to shut up. When he made that speech almost exactly four years ago, I wanted to vote for him. For something, for anything. Now, as his vision of himself becomes a real possibility, though, I find that he may have filled out that suit all too well. It's hard to see the humanity underneath. Even the humor feels calculated now. And again, just like with Joan, I have to wonder - is he so focused on the goal that he has to live that persona every moment of every day? Or is he the kind of guy who can go home at night and change diapers while making poopy jokes? And if he gets elected, in eight years will he even think to wonder if it was worth it? He'll spend the rest of his life followed around by the Secret Service. How will he ever be able to take off that presidential persona without feeling entirely naked? Most of us look at the before and after pictures of U.S. president and wonder how anything that ages you that much in eight years could possibly be desirable. And yet, they seem to miss it when it's gone.
I once told someone that I felt like I wasn't special and nothing I did seemed to make a difference. He told me to stop trying to be special and, instead, to decide that I already was special and not do anything inconsistent with that. It was an effective strategy. The hard part was not to overshoot the mark and go from special to entitled. Barack and Joan seem to have adopted a similar strategy, but on a really grand scale. I just hope that they haven't overshot the mark, either. Because I really liked the Joan I knew in 1975. And Barack may just be our next president.
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