Budweiser’s American Creation Myth

The must-see film this week is the Budweiser commercial from the Superbowl, which was as shrewd and political as it was feel-good and universal. Trumpistas are trying to boycott it, but good luck with that one. That’s like boycotting Christmas cookies because the Pope is soft on Muslims. (It is in fact goofy that Superbowl ads are the arena for our national psyche, but that’s where we are.)

A day and a half after the Superbowl kickoff on Sunday, this ad had almost 27 million views on Youtube, though fifteen or so of them were me.

It starts in a “present” time in the 1800s when two men with German accents, one obviously an experienced capitalist and one a handsome young buck, stand next to one another in a taproom. “You’re not from around here,” the older man observes, and off we go to a thirty-plus second montage that tells his epic journey:

A storm-tossed ship crosses the Atlantic. The young stud is already sketching something obsessive and entrepreneurial.

The ship hits a wave: He hits his head. Gets stitches over his eye. Gets asked (in German) why he is moving to America and answers that he wants to brew beer. The first weird note is that he answers a German question in English, but who cares? It’s as gorgeous as Pelle the Conqueror so far.

Fifteen seconds in, he is told “Welcome to America” by the official stamping his document, immediately followed by a menacing, Know Nothing thug saying, “You’re not wanted here…Go back home.” This is obviously the offending interaction to some, and wow what a bold statement. I like Gaga (more than I like her actual songs), but this is the most political statement of the year. “First kick I took was when I hit the ground,” Springsteen sings in “Born in the USA,” and here it’s “First person who told me to go back home was when I walked off the boat.” Say what you want about the Trumpistas calling for a boycott, but they read this ad correctly. Hold that thought, though.

Fast-forward to a Mississippi riverboat. He’s going upstream with a black companion, still doodling in his sketchbook. Wow! This is where the grad students start rolling out the word “problematic,” but give Anheuser-Busch credit for going deep in the American mind, linking their creation myth to Huckleberry Finn and the mythic fraternity between black and white.

At half-way through the 60-second spot, the riverboat catches fire and he has to jump overboard, and he trudges through tall reeds on a rainy winter day. Talk about reversals! This Budweiser ad is more suspenseful than most independent films.

There’s mud everywhere. “Welcome to Saint Louis, son,” says a perfect stranger, with a picturesque Clydesdale horse in the background.

Back to the present: “Beer for my friend, please,” says the capitalist, and now the narrative slows down. The strapping lad thanks him and shows him what he’s been sketching, and they introduce themselves: “Eberhard Anheuser.” “Adolphus Busch.” End of story/beginning of story. “When nothing stops your dream,” the text reads.

These are men of few words, but when they do speak they’re in a bar buying beers for each other. Though it’s a little odd that Busch was sketching the actual bottle of Bud, label and all, and not an industrial brewing breakthrough – and though I personally would love to taste whatever they were drinking before the inception of Budweiser – by this time you’re more than hooked.

It’s worth noting that of the five interactions young Adolphus Busch has on his journey to America (six if you count the negro he’s obviously cordial with), only one is a nativist. The horse doctor who stitches his eye, the immigration official, and the first person he meets in Saint Louis all welcome him, and the first person he sips a beer with is a fellow immigrant waiting to help him  make his dream come true.

As in most creation myths, this is a guy who answered the call. While associating itself with beards and artisanal entrepreneurs – things the macro-brews have been struggling against – Budweiser is also taking sides against what feels like a temporary flare-up of anti-immigrant feeling. (It certainly feels more temporary than it did on Saturday.) What’s more American than buying a Bud for a fresh-off-the-boat stranger?

My Donald Trump

The TV event of the year is happening tonight. I’m invited to a viewing party to see it, and have a bottle of party wine picked out (a liter of Italian grenache) and nothing else going on, but still I’m leaving the option of skipping it on the table till the last minute.

Based on past experience, I’m not sure I can sit through it. In October 2012, I’d spent a week on a solo writing retreat near the Vermont border and was driving back right on time to see the second Obama-Romney debate. My wife and friends had a nice supper waiting, and as we tuned in I could feel the peace and focus evaporating through my temples. I started pacing, then doing the dishes. Romney was pestering Obama about domestic oil drilling, and Obama, who knew it was nothing to be proud of, bickered right back, saying his plan allowed for more drilling than Mitt’s plan. “This is how we choose presidents?” I finished my drink in the kitchen.

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Melania. Be very afraid.

And this year, I’ve actually had face time with one of the candidates: Donald Trump used to be my boss! In the spring of 2005 I was new to New York and answered an ad for crew wanted for a TV show. An interview was scheduled for Trump Tower, which I naively figured was just a space another production was renting. It was one of those situations when you’re expecting an interview, and you show up and they want to know why you didn’t bring any ID’s for an I-9. There’s no discussion, you’ve got the job.

So, I figured, “What the hell? Let’s see what working for The Apprentice is like.” It would be good for a laugh anyway. My way with assistant-level jobs was always to wear a nicer shirt than anyone else, which isn’t hard on a TV shoot, because everybody looks like crap, and before you know it you’re promoted. The first day was a full crew meeting, where we watched a sizzle reel of that season’s contestants. We laughed, often at their expense.

We were warned that although The Donald would be on set at times, we were not to talk to him: He has a habit of going down the chain of command when he has a bad idea. If his producers disagreed with him, he asked his producer’s assistants. If they disagreed, then he started talking to random guys in baseball caps until someone nervously answered, “Good idea.” It seemed like a curious thing to say to – I don’t remember how many of us there were, but the meeting was held in the Hammerstein Ballroom, which tells you something about how many of us were present.

The first episode of that season started on Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, NJ, with Trump telling the gathered contestants that he would give a leg up to one person by giving him or her a ride back to New York City in his helicopter if they’d be the first to run to it, which started a race across a fairway to his waiting chopper, a scramble reminiscent of the longshoremen fighting for a token to work in On The Waterfront.

That night, after a twelve-hour day, I was told that I looked something like one of the contestants, and asked if I could come back for the reshoot the next day. A “reshoot” in reality TV? Yes they do! If they need a wide shot without the twenty-plus video cameras in the frame, they restage the action a day later with stand-ins. I was told that it paid better and could lead to steady work doing it.

Producer: Can you come tomorrow?

Me: Sure.

Producer: Do you have a black suit?

Me: Yeah.

Producer: Do you have a red tie?

Me: I don’t think so.

Producer: Can you borrow one by tomorrow?

Me: I doubt it.

Producer: Well, do your best and let us know.

The Apprentice was the number one show on NBC at the time, and it relied on the aspirations of not just its cast to break the actors union, but its stand-ins’ own wardrobes to get the correct color of tie for its reshoots. I had no aspirations of being on screen, so I showed up sans cravat and figured it would be their problem if they needed a red tie. We shot it without it, the production manager himself playing Trump in the wide shot, wearing a Chinatown Trump wig. That’s the great business genius in a nutshell.

Crew members were tired of constantly going through security and up the elevator, so one day I offered to run an envelope up to set. My $24.99 shirt from H&M separated me from the riff raff and I strode right in. Trump smiled at me, and we nodded hello, but I could see by his handlers’ expressions, something like the look on the cop’s face the moment Jack Ruby shot Oswald, that it wasn’t the time for introductions.

After a few weeks of dozing behind the wheel of a van in the no-parking zone outside of Trump Tower I asked the coordinator if maybe we can excuse a few of us to leave early, since we had too many vehicles anyway, and he leveled with me: It was cheaper to keep them attended than to park them in a ramp. That’s when you realize you’re taking the long way in your career.

And now Trump could be president. I guess it only makes sense that the person responsible for putting so many TV writers out of work is flummoxing so many writers as a politician. As columnists one after another publish their own version of the definitive reasons Trump is not fit to be prez, it feels like they’re falling on their swords, realizing that discursive writing itself is meaningless.

I’ve said in the past that the real determinant of elections is the first ladies: Voters turn out to vote for the kind of sex life they want the country to have. Democrats lose when they try reviving Eleanor Roosevelt, and they win with youthful, exciting first ladies.

That’s the unknown that terrifies me as much as the prospect of another numskull with a pipe bomb tilting the election to Trump. Bill Clinton, as the first male “first lady,” has to play the part of the sagacious grandpa; being the frisky grandpa like Bob Dole doing Viagra ads is off limits for him. He’s always more Eleanor than Jacqueline or Michelle. Voters are hardly deft enough thinkers to identify with a 70-year-old leader (I know, I’m rounding up: Hillary will be 69 next month.), and we’re asking them to do that and get over their bias against female leaders, when Trump has Melania standing next to him.

I feel the urge to hide come election time, not because I fear the opponents but because I get frustrated with my friends, many of whom, this time around, are breathlessly repeating every last transgression of Trump, whose strategy is obviously to keep people talking about Trump the released American id, so we never talk about Clinton.

I refuse to believe that the 55 million Americans who are going to vote for Trump are either fascists or willing fascist-enablers. There must be some other motive at work, but judging by the reception a column by an anti-Trump Republican got last week, the Left doesn’t want to hear it. Ross Douthat posted a cheeky piece with the admittedly misleading title “Clinton’s Samantha Bee Problem.” Judging by the online response, you’d think he was blaming a beloved feminist comic for Trump’s rise, when all he was doing was pointing out that, historically, the ascendance of cultural liberalism doesn’t necessarily translate into political power, and in fact inspires a knee-jerk response against liberalism in the hinterlands, one that Trump is riding right now.

Are voters really so short-sighted? So tasteless?  The answer is apparently yes, except for our saviors, the women of the suburbs in Cleveland, Philly, and Miami. If Hillary keeps up this message, she’ll rally them and win:

This is the Hillary I’m looking for tonight, or the Hillary I would be looking for, if I weren’t in my friend’s kitchen, washing the wine glasses and looking for a lid for the Tupperware container that’s just the right size for the amount of tabouleh that’s left over.