The Magazine

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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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.