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Showered with Praise

The media's love affair with the idea of Barack Obama.

Mar 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 26 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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"The other night I dreamt of Barack Obama," New York Times blogger Judith Warner wrote in a much-buzzed-about entry on February 5. "He was taking a shower right when I needed to get into the bathroom to shave my legs." Indeed. There were stories that John F. Kennedy, while knocking on doors in his campaigns for the House and the Senate, used to ask householders for the use of a tub to ease his back miseries, but this may be the first time that an actual president turned up in a shower, even if only in dreams. But this was far from the end of the story, as Warner afterwards seemed to find many friends or acquaintances who reported dreams or daydreams of contact with our national leader. "There was a dream, sent from Minneapolis, about buying Barack the perfect sandwich," Warner informs us, "and a dream from Westport, Conn., about inviting Michelle and the girls over" for a play date and lunch. Some women dreamed "about sex with the president." There was the 62-year-old woman in Florida who dreamed that the 47-year-old Obama had married her, after having first been divorced by his wife.

The post drew 289 responses, some of which even seemed rational. "Do you ever write about non-neurotic people, or do they not exist in your universe?" asked one poleaxed reader. "Paging Dr. Freud to the Warner residence!" said another. "I think the Secret Service may need to touch base with some of these people," said a third, and another remarked rather sagely, "I dreamed that I read a column about President Obama in the New York Times that took the country and its problems seriously. This column wasn't it." Most, however, seemed to think these effusions were perfectly rational, and offered a few of their own. A Washington woman described as a "global health care consultant" confessed, "I dreamed I was an Obama girl. .  .  . There were dark velvet chairs and he was standing there with all this dark and mist around him. His lips so purple and sensuous as if to be otherworldly. I moved gently toward him and then I said the wrong thing." Another reader, in her dreams at least, was rather more fortunate: "I too had a dream about Barack Obama. We were at some sort of a luncheon together. He was very friendly and a bit provocative. I may have sat in his lap."

There was another set whose aspirations were less on the lap-and-purple-lipped level, and more on the plane of good works. These came from those in the change-based community, who saw "change" as a thing you "created," and a tangible good in itself. "I feel like I know Barack," said a Washington lawyer, "that I have worked grassroots and created change in the way that he has. I [also] have feelings of a mom who had possibility but ended up running school auctions .  .  . rather than having the opportunity to be out there on a national level creating change." As a "creator of change" on the highest of levels, Obama to them was the lost opportunity, the much higher road that they had not taken, and the object of wistful longing. "I'm a current ivy league student and have this nagging, back of my head, wouldn't share with anyone fear that .  .  . the next Obamas are running around our campus and I'm not friends with them," as one reader put it.

Feelings like this sloshed over into the national media, to the Washington Post, where Eli Saslow marveled at the chiseled chest muscles of the president-elect as he emerged from the surf on his Christmas vacation; to Time and to Newsweek, which, having declared him a success before he even took office, compared him (favorably) to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and celebrated him in iconic and worshipful covers that seemed to have run every week. Obama, it seems clear, is not your usual pol, but a cosmic event and communal experience, on a whole other plane than traditional norms. "What's wonderful is that this political/cultural experience is propelling American society--and perhaps the planet--into a whole new phase of evolution and development," wrote one of Warner's respondents. And indeed, she would seem to speak for them all.

The idea of Obama has taken on a life of its own that exists quite apart from the actual man, and that has always been bigger, and much more alluring, than he. It is not what he does, but what he is and implies that has been so compelling, and one thing he is is not-white. Or he is half-white--a black man, who was brought up and raised by his mother's white family--which makes him still better: as a genetic mixture of Kenya and Kansas, he emerged as the literal symbol of national union, the two racial strains merged as one.

Anyone--your Colin Powell, your Michael Steele, your Condi Rice (who had a boomlet around 2006 in Republican circles)--could break barriers (as John Kennedy did with religion some 40 years earlier), but only Obama could appear in this role of a tangible symbol, the word, or the ideal, made flesh. Penumbrae of mangers and bulrushes lurked in the background, sensed, if not said in the open. Some people did say it, if in jest: "The Child ventured forth to bring light unto all the world," Gerard Baker wrote in a satirical piece for the London Times at the apex of Obama's Grand Tour last summer. "The Child was blessed in looks and intellect. Scion of a simple family, offspring of a miraculous union, grandson of a typical white person and an African peasant. .  .  . The Elders were astonished at what they heard and said among themselves, 'Verily, who is this Child that he opens our hearts and minds to the audacity of hope?'" It was all fairly risible (and was lampooned in ads with cuts to a number of biblical epics), but the emotion behind it was all too compelling, and the longing across the entire political spectrum was so transparent and open that when Obama at last put his hand on the Bible, many conservatives had tears (not of grief) in their eyes. This was the high end of Obamamania, an aspirational note that at least had some substance behind it. But other forms of this feeling were not quite this high.

In the second half of this meme, it matters less that Obama is biracial than that he is metropolitan, and less that he is black or part black than that he is blue. That is, blue as in blue state America; and urban, as well as urbane. He is not just our first black, but our first metropolitan president (at least in a long time), a city boy as opposed to a son of the suburbs or soil, someone who is not from the heart of the heartland, who does not believe that the soul of the country resides in small towns. True, he lived his early life outside of the country--Indonesia and Hawaii are not Brooklyn Heights--but once he began to choose his own settings, his choices were all in big cities: Morningside Heights in New York, Cambridge in Boston, and Hyde Park in Chicago, where he set down his roots. The most urban candidate since Al Smith ran and lost 80 years earlier, he was an oddity even within his own party: The Roosevelt cousins were at home in New York, but their hearts were in Sagamore Hill and Hyde Park on the Hudson; JFK was urbane, but he lived in a country called Privilege, and the home of his heart was Cape Cod. The heart of Obama resides in the city. Obama, the fatherless waif who invented himself as an urbanite, is the flip-side of George W. Bush, the dynast born in Connecticut (where his grandfather would be senator), who rejected his ties to the eastern establishment and embraced his Texan identity--to the point of wearing his Texas Air National Guard jacket and chewing tobacco at Yale.

If Obamamania is the flip side of Bush hatred, then the embrace of Obama by the Times, Time, and Newsweek is the product of their rejection of Bush and his culture, their assertion that they and their culture are better than his is, and that they, as its products, are better and brighter than he. To understand this, one has to remember two things: that the most vehement and vicious objections to Bush came less from the traditional left than the lifestyle glossies; and the hysteria that descended on blue state America in 2004, when George W. Bush of Crawford defeated John Forbes Kerry (D-Nuance) of Beacon Hill, Georgetown, Nantucket, Sun Valley, and anywhere else that his millionaire wife had a residence. "Do you mean there's still going to be civilization?" James Atlas wrote in New York magazine in November 2004, the day after the unthinkable happened. "Classical music, summaries of the week's New York Times Book Review, murmurous programs on the 'Treasures of Ancient China' exhibit at the Met?"

The Met survived Bush (the Times is a whole other story), but with Obama, Atlas can rest easy: Obama is the candidate for those who believe that the New York Times Book Review defines civilization, and Obama will be their revenge. He is Metro, not Retro. He is not from Texas, and doesn't talk southern. He does not have a ranch, which he does not cut brush on. He has never run anything, but they haven't either. He does talk and write, which are their professions. He doesn't look like the men on Mount Rushmore, but then, they don't either. (Instead, he looks like a catalogue model, or someone in the window of Barney's or Saks.) He was endorsed, not by the NRA, but by the fashion industry, whose members designed whole collections around him. Not only the Times, but Condé Nast, loves him. He is Woody Allen's Manhattan to Gary Cooper's High Noon.

He is, in effect, themselves only better, which explains his attraction for New York Times bloggers, and for their soulmates at Newsweek and Time. "These are people for whom the Obamas are not just a beacon .  .  . but .  .  . a kind of mirror," as Warner writes. "This is the first president I've known who looks, talks, and acts like a peer," as one man told her. "I feel like I understand what he's like and where's he coming from. .  .  . If you stopped the clock in 2004 .  .  . he'd feel roughly like a peer in terms of accomplishments. .  .  . Despite his incredible achievements, he still seems like a lot of people I know."

Believing the right is made up of dorks and bigots, liberals find the idea of Obama a tonic and twofer, allowing them to think well of themselves on two different levels--as the wonderful people who backed and elected our first nonwhite president; and as the wonderful people who set style everywhere, the ultimate last word in cool. Either would do, but the two put together--the messiah and model in one lissome package--was enough to make them go bonkers, and bonkers they went. "As a nation, we're shedding our childlike, rural innocence and becoming more mature, urban, urbane  .  .  .  dare I say it, sophisticated?" Joe Klein enthused, and went on to declare the Obama administration an astonishing triumph before it had started, and well in advance of the fact. So did Jonathan Alter, in spite of the fact that the stock market had only gone down with Obama's accession. "Chin up, everyone. This president is well poised to bring us back from the brink," he declared, just before Obama embarked on his first speech before Congress. How did Alter know this? Well, he just knew. Obama was so "naturally confident," so bold, and yet humble, so brainy (in the same way as Alter), so much the "smart, cool instructor, trusted by the class to explain." So Obama explained things. And then the Dow declined even more.

The high point of Obama as an idea may have come between his election and his inauguration, when imagination roamed free and his potential was limitless, while the reckoning came when he had to stop talking, and act. "There isn't much further he can go as a speechmaker," said the TV critic Tom Shales, no friend to Obama's enemies. " 'It is time for America to lead again,' he said, but hasn't he said that before? How many times can he say 'it's time' before it really is time? The honeymoon might go on, but if it turns out to be a case of too much talk and too little action, the great communal cry of national disappointment will be crushing, and cruel." Wall Street was proving immune to the cult of Obama. There was a whole lot of action, but most of it seemed to be down. "It's heading toward 6,000," said MSNBC's Chris Matthews of the Dow, his leg tingle quite vanished. "People are really getting angry. I'm getting angry. .  .  . They are really angry and they're going to get mad at him if we don't get this market turned around." By March 3, Christopher Buckley and David Brooks, the leading Obamacons of 2008, were both peeling off, holding their heads, and moaning of deficits. Even Maureen Dowd did a 180, referring to her man's "disturbing spells of passivity." The intoxication was wearing off fast.

"Barack Obama had a gift and he knew it," ran the start of a long Newsweek piece about the election. "He had a way of making very smart, very accomplished people feel virtuous" simply by helping him out. "Obama's gift correlates with the inner needs of his audience," noted the blogger Scott Johnson. And so it did. That audience voted for him because he made them feel better, because he made them feel brave, noble, and tolerant; because he made them feel better than Bush and some others; because he made them feel part of a select clique of people, because he made them feel clever, and cool. They know they and Obama are smarter than Bush is because .  .  . well, they know it. In 2004, Howell Raines was sure that John Kerry was smarter than Bush was, and the records proved otherwise. What if facts prove otherwise now?

For the past six years, if not more, the implication of everything written in the Times, Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker was that if only they had one of their own in the White House, he could really ace this whole president business, which only seemed hard because Bush was so clueless, so Texan, so lacking in intellect (at least as defined by their editors' standards). But Obama's first weeks have not been promising. The Daily Telegraph (U.K.) writes that Obama is "overwhelmed" by his office, and "surprise[d] at the sheer volume of business that crosses his desk." This has not gone unnoticed. "In ways both large and small, what's left of the American establishment is taking his measure and, with surprising swiftness, they are finding him lacking," as Howard Fineman reports. What if he turns out to be no more able than Bush was to figure out how to calm down the markets, how to close Gitmo without causing more problems, what to do about Russia and Pakistan, and how to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon without risk of starting a war? How sophisticated will Klein feel if the Dow hits 5000? Where will Warner and pen pals go with their fantasies? The shower they wanted to take with Obama may be a cold dousing quite soon.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.