What could possibly be wrong with 75,000 people attending a political rally?
Admittedly, not much on the surface. And perhaps if the times weren’t so perilous and the candidate who was the beneficiary of that huge crowd wasn’t so problematic, we could really celebrate such an outpouring of support, free from the nagging doubts that plague many of us about Barack Obama and his past associations and present ideological beliefs.
Except my republican soul (note the small “r”) is a little frightened at this mob scene. Politicians should be plebeian in their appeal – being one of us and not standing above us, Caesar-like in their beguilement of the masses. Truman and Eisenhower were plebes; modest in their habits and with no illusions regarding their own failings. There is something to be said for such solid republican values in a presidential candidate and when someone such as a Kennedy or Obama rises above the masses, presenting themselves as perhaps something more than a servant of the people, we are bound to look in askance at such a phenomenon.
Joseph Kennedy told his family at the beginning of JFK’s campaign that they were going to sell the candidate “like soap flakes.” Papa Joe wasn’t just talking about advertising. He was revealing a strategy that for the first time joined the talents of Madison Avenue with the power of Hollywood celebrity to create powerful, irresistible imagery that would elevate Kennedy to hero status and place him on a different plane altogether than any other politician in the country.
It worked beyond expectations. The Kennedy image makers took a sickly, rather bookish 42 year old manchild known for his excesses of the flesh and turned him into a vigorous, glamorous, serious man with a patrician’s attitude of noblesse oblige and a “star quality” unique for its time among politicians.
Of course, this image making worked out quite well until Kennedy was forced to confront Kruschev in Vienna where the peasant -a survivor of a brutal war and numerous murderous purges under Stalin – took the measure of the patrician and found it wanting. The Russian was so certain of his moral ascendancy over Kennedy that he browbeat the younger man, drawing Kennedy into a debate over the superiority of communism over capitalism where the American’s stammering answers to Kruschev’s harangue convinced the Russian that if he placed missiles in Cuba, Kennedy would do nothing in response.
Kennedy spent a considerable amount of time in Hollywood when he was younger and became fascinated with the science of celebrity. What makes one person a movie star and another an extra? As far as JFK could see it wasn’t looks – many extras floating around at Hollywood parties that he and his brothers frequented were as good or better looking than the movie stars of the age. Kennedy decided it was the star’s ability to “project” personality on to the movie screen. He believed that by surrounding himself with movie stars like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Marylin Monroe, and his brother in law Peter Lawford, he would unlock their secrets and, like a magic talisman, their celebrity would rub off on him.
Obama needs no such lessons in how to be a celebrity. He has learned along the way to project his personality (or the personality he chooses to affect) on to an audience, drawing them in to his arms as a mother draws her children. He uses rhetoric to both soothe and ignite his audience. His words are passionate but the candidate himself remains “cool;” a nice trick that makes him extremely accessible to those listening to him. Where most politicians try and instruct the listener, Obama asks questions that the audience already knows the answers. And that answer is him.
Perhaps that is what gives me the most unease when I listen to Obama. It is not the power of the party or his ideas that he attempts to win his audience to; it is a very personal power to which he seeks to wed his fans to his campaign. The solution to our problems, he tells us, is belief; a belief that he can change the country, that he can heal our wounds, restore our soul, and make our cup runneth over.
Any other politician trying this would fall flat on their face and we’d either laugh at them or identify them immediately for the demagogues they are. But because he never fails to include his “empowerment” mantra with his “belief” shtick, one gets the feeling that by joining his campaign, you are entering a privileged society of believers. I don’t want to call it a religion because it is not. But the atmosphere at many of his speeches certainly approaches that of a revival meeting where one’s belief in the preacher will lead them to paradise.
Reading what many Obama supporters say about it their candidate, it is easy to see that they view him as the classic knight on a white charger where he and only he can rescue us from our own folly. Given all that we don’t know about this man, does that make him dangerous? Perhaps no more so than any other candidate. No one saw Nixon as the white horse type and look what he turned out to be.
But dangerous he is – for his beliefs, not for his personality or the character of this mass movement he has inspired. So when I see 75,000 people screaming his name with the kind of abandon reserved for rock stars or religious figures, I worry more that the candidate won’t be able to live up to the lofty expectations he has engendered in his legions than he would use such a movement for nefarious purposes.
And given his incredible lack of experience and zero track record in getting anything done, I would guess that if he is elected he would generate more disappointment among his followers than any other president in memory.