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The Charisma Machine

What the media mistakes about itself and Obama.

12:00 AM, Jun 11, 2008 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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FIRST IT WAS Chris Matthews getting a thrill up his leg when he thought of Barack Obama; then it was Newsweek giving Obama a free pass on everything; now it is Mark Halperin over at Time warning that the Charisma Machine is going to roll right over McCain in November, with the media's hand on the wheel. How old McCain looks! How decrepit he is! How sick everyone (especially the press) is of everyone but Obama! How stunning he is! How inspiring he is! How "valuable" he makes people feel, telling them THEY are the ones they are waiting for. How "powerful" it will be when he debates John McCain on security issues, and comes out the better. How "forcefully" Obama will "move to the center as a mainstream, optimistic candidate," celebrating both America's greatness, and "change." (And how great will it be when he ducks into the phone booth, and out comes ... never mind.)

Anything can happen, in the Belmont Stakes and in politics, and perhaps Halperin is right in saying McCain underestimates Obama's pizzazz, and the desire of the press to promote it. But it is also possible he overestimates both Obama, and the power of journalists, himself among them. Love is blind, or at least short-sighted, and there are some warning signs he has missed:

l. The enthusiasm Obama arouses is surely amazing, but it is also contained and confined. In fact, it doesn't even move most of the Democrats. When crunching the numbers in all of the primaries, Michael Barone has found that Obama carried white voters in only two places--state capitals and university towns, where he amassed huge followings among students, teachers, and employees of the government, most of whom (a) tend to lean left; (b) live in a world of words and abstractions; and (c) due to tenure, unions, and parental support, find themselves outside of the world of the marketplace. As such, they are pushovers for ego-massaging and vacuous maunderings. They tend not to notice that his frame of reference is always himself and his feelings, and that his appeals to racial healing, bipartisanship, government reform and sweet reason do not connect to his acts in real life. In the real world, he has voted party line on almost all issues, has managed to befriend and hang out with an amazing collection of people whose lives contradict all these themes, including racists, demagogues, some of the most corrupt practitioners of machine urban politics, and people whose idea of political action once involved planting bombs. These sorts of things may not bother students or shoppers at Whole Foods, but they do bother people who cling to God and their guns out of sheer desperation, and tend to vote in places like, say, Pennsylvania, where Obama lost to Hillary Clinton by ten points.

2. McCain does look old, and this is a problem. On the other hand, he looks like a rock, or an oak tree, while Obama looks more like a reed or a sapling, if not like a twig. He looks attractive, but not too substantial, not someone to look to in trouble. McCain looks as if he could stand up through a hurricane, while Obama might waft away on the wind. He would be better than McCain as an underwear model, but do we really need this in a president? In this case, "young vs. old" could also be read as "weak vs. strong," in which case it flips to McCain's advantage, as we are selecting a commander-in-chief, and not the star of a serial. Unless it could be '24.'

3. Perhaps Obama will "forcefully move to the center," but it's not very clear what he (or the media) believe the word "center" implies. To be "centrist," he would have to fudge his support for race-based quotas and preferences, retract his opposition to the Born Alive bill, which makes it illegal to murder a newborn who survives an abortion, and cut back his claim that he would withdraw from Iraq, even if generals on the ground assure him a devastating defeat would result. To be "optimistic," he would have to muzzle his wife, (a perilous enterprise) as her view of her country as "downright mean" doesn't fit well with national greatness. Perhaps too he will dazzle McCain in debates on security issues, but this seems unlikely, as he never seems to have studied them deeply, and seems wholly dismissive of recent events in Iraq. He also seems prone to let his wits lapse when unscripted, such as claiming that Illinois is farther away from Kentucky than Arkansas, and that the union mysteriously has annexed seven new states. In a similar lapse, Gerald Ford prematurely freed Poland, and the results were not pretty. Such things could happen again.

4. Then, there's the matter of media power, or lack thereof. But since Obama peaked on February 19, when he won Wisconsin at the end of his 11-state winning streak, the media's efforts on his behalf have seemed counter-productive at best. In effect, the full flowering of the media's intense crush on Barack Obama coincided with the resurgence of Hillary Clinton, and may even have fueled it, as overkill tends to get on one's nerves. From February 19 on, Obama went into a series of tailspins, losing big states and swing states by big--blowout--margins. "The more the media told Hillary she was toast the more Democrats insisted on voting for her," observes Mark Steyn correctly. "On the strength of Chris Matthews's vibrating calves, Mr. Obama raised a ton of money and massively outspent Mrs. Clinton, but he didn't really get any bang for its buck." Obama finally wheezed over the finish line, saved by the delegates he piled up in caucuses and in small states when no one was looking, before the press had the chance to weigh in with its magic. The press may love itself--and Obama--just a little too much.

When John Kennedy died, Joseph Alsop wrote that Washington was filled with "male widows," and that he too was one of them. Obama isn't president (yet), but he has more than his share of male concubines, who are starting to embarrass themselves (and their readers) with a slavish devotion that is only too evident. They are "at that stage in the ad where the announcer warns that, if leg tingles persist for more than six months, see your doctor," as Steyn advises. Chris Matthews, Newsweek, and now Mr. Halperin, should seek out their doctors, and fast.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.