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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"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.