Sunday, February 17, 2008

The "Cut" Of Personality

This whole mystique that surrounds Barack Obama is no secret to me. I've felt it several times in the past forty years of political awareness, as recently as 2004, when John Edwards ran the first time.

What amuses me is the staunch defense O-Bombers will put up for any criticism of the Senator's policies, legislative achievements (if you can find any), or positions (basically, he's as much a Democratic progressive as Hillary Clinton, who has thirty years of progressive action to show for it).

There is much to be said about the cult of personality that has grown up around this tyro. Let's look at another politician who could inspire:
On March 4, Roosevelt gave his now famous inaugural address, promising that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Within days he had secured legislation guaranteeing the banks, and on March 12, he took to the radio for the first of his fireside chats. “When the people find out that they can get their money — that they can get it when they want it — the phantom of fear will soon be laid,” he soothed an anxious nation. “I can assure you, it is safer to keep your money in a re-opened bank than under your mattress.”

When banks re-opened the next morning, the lines were gone, as Robert A. Caro recounted in the first volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, “The Path to Power.” People put money back in, so much that on the first day after the chat, deposits outweighed withdrawals by $10 million.

It was the legislation, but mostly, Mr. Caro writes: “Their confidence was restored by his confidence. When he smiled on the crisis, it seemed to vanish.”
So, you see, it was the legislation that backed up the sunny disposition. In other words, there was steak behind the sizzle.

We face a similar crisis today in this country. The last President to truly inspire us was Bill Clinton. Before that, it was Ronald Reagan. Both were charismatic, true, and both had a plan, dug into the dirt and came up with solutions.

Clinton's, of course, worked for everyone. Reagan's stole from the poor to give to the rich. We can see that policy does not necessarily preclude incompetence.

But what about the cult of personality? What about the charisma?
“Today, attacks on the cult of personality seem really to mean attacks on the ability to make speeches that inspire,” Mr. Caro said in an interview. “But you only have to look at crucial moments in the history of our time to see how crucial it was to have a leader who could inspire, who could rally a nation to a standard, who could infuse a country with confidence, to remind people of the justice of a cause.”

Still, Mr. Caro adds a caveat: “That doesn’t always translate into a great presidency.”
Adolph Hitler springs to mind as a charismatic leader who had nothing in his heart or mind but hatred for his people, yet inspired them at one of Germany's most difficult times.

Why is this trait so troubling to me about Obama?
“What is troubling about the campaign is that it’s gone beyond hope and change to redemption,” said Sean Wilentz, a historian at Princeton (and a longtime friend of the Clintons). “It’s posing as a figure who is the one person who will redeem our politics. And what I fear is, that ends up promising more from politics than politics can deliver.”[...]

Accounts of the campaign’s “Camp Obama” sessions, to train volunteers, have a revivalist flavor. Volunteers are urged to avoid talking about policy to potential voters, and instead tell of how they “came” to Mr. Obama.

“If you don’t talk about issues in great detail, if you do it in a way that is not the centerpiece of your campaign, of your rhetoric, then you become a blank screen,” Mr. Wilentz said. “Everybody thinks you are the vehicle of their hopes.”
That can only end up in disappointment. The coalescence of my fear comes down to this sentence:

If you had the policies ready and in place and were confident they were the right policies, you'd talk about them endlessly.

Anything else, and you're just selling me a used car.