Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Barack Obama and the 'Ghost of Charisma Past'

[I posted this twenty-four hours ago over at The Moderate Voice, where I'm a contributor.]

The death of a young person is a tragedy that freezes their image in time and subjects it to romantic embellishments. The deceased becomes a template.

On the morning of November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy had served as President of the United States for two years and ten months. He was poised to be renominated by his party in 1964 and would have likely defeated the presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, though not by the massive proportions that Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson, skillfully employing grief over Kennedy's violent passing and his own extraordinary legislative and political skills, enjoyed. In 1964, Goldwater, his generation's Mr. Conservative, was, in that era, considered too "out there."

Yet, Kennedy had his troubles. He had gone from a position of ambivalence about civil rights to favoring a new Civil Rights Act by the time his plane touched down in Texas for a journey of political fence-mending, but a combination of Southern Democrats and some Northern Republicans had checked his tepid efforts at getting a bill passed. In fact, he had been fairly thwarted in getting much of anything accomplished. In short, Kennedy's legacy reflected a lifelong penchant for dissipation coupled with a fierce commitment to personal victory at any cost.

And then he was murdered. Through a haze of national grief, the nation early on embraced the Camelot image of Kennedy's brief White House tenure suggested by his widow, Jacqueline, to writer and Kennedy friend, Theodore White.

For years afterward, Democratic activists and political pundits alike, were looking for the next Kennedy. A 1972 Esquire cover article gave voice to this widespread yearning. A short feature included in the piece briefly portrayed several potential wearers of the Kennedy crown. Entitled, 'The Ghost of Charisma Past,' a young John Kerry was among the pretenders.

Kerry obviously emulated JFK. And not just in the initials he shared with the late president. The post-1963 image of Kennedy was imprinted on generations of Democratic politicians as the gold standard. He was the pol to be emulated. It's been apparent not only in Kerry, but also in Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, John Tunney, John Lindsey, and many others. Each, in their own way, whether self-consciously or involuntarily, have evoked memories of Kennedy, replicating the cartoonish image of their hero in ways that Republican candidates would ape Ronald Reagan two decades later. These imitators of Camelot Jack sought to use soaring rhetoric. They sported bushy thickets of hair, employed self-deprecation, gave the appearance of being an intellectual, and, always, affected an air of slight detachment. Like the scion of the millionaire bootlegger who may have felt that he owed it to his dad to be president but, except for the thrill of beating all comers, didn't really want to sit in the Oval Office, his imitators affected a similar indifference.

JFK was cool, not in the Rat Pack sense, although Kennedy used Sinatra's posse for his own ends until he was in the White House and could drop Frank and Company. Instead, JFK was cool like Prince Phillip before the Windsors' reputation went south, like Grace Kelly: compelling, attractive, serene, unapproachable, a bit amused by it all, and oh-so-entitled.

Candidates like Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and Paul Tsongas, liberals who sweat, felt comfortable in union halls, and bought their suits off the rack at J.C. Penney, couldn't be the role models of candidates like Hart and Kerry. Nor would those looking for the Second Coming of Camelot accept mere mortals like Humphrey et al. Their beau ideal floated above the mundane. In the minds of millions of Kennedy-worshipers, the leader they wanted was a philosopher-king, the JFK who never was.

A fact that eluded the Camelot nostalgists is that none of these JFK imitators were able to get elected President. And in the more democratic pre-convention processes that have existed since 1972, they usually haven't even been able to secure nominations.

But the post-1963 JFK template continues to exercise enormous influence over the Democratic imagination. In many ways, Barack Obama is the latest exemplar of it. In spite of his demonstrably-humble roots, the charge, both implicit and explicit, levied by his opponents this year, that Obama is an elitist, out of touch with the lives and concerns of average Americans, is the result of the senator's embodiment of the JFK ideal. It's interesting that among the main reasons given for endorsing the first-term US senator for president by Kennedy's brother Edward and daughter Caroline is that Obama evoked the same passions and stoked the same liberal dreams that JFK once did.

Some voters will reject Obama simply because of his race. That racism still exerts its evil influence over American life in 2008 is tragic and frankly, despicable.

But much of Obama's now well-documented trouble in connecting with working class whites, Reagan Democrats, and Clinton supporters is that he also, like Kerry before him, is seen as too detached, too out of step with them. Obama's long, seemingly temporizing answers, such as those he gave during his sit-down with Rick Warren...his apparent inability to just say what he thinks...These are Kennedy-esque and, in many ways, out of touch with these times.

John Althouse Cohen has written a thoughtful piece on how Obama has "lost him." He intends still to vote for Obama and has invested much in the senator's candidacy, including participation as an Obama supporter in the Texas caucuses earlier this year. But Cohen doesn't have the same passion for Obama that he once had.

Cohen's sentiments echo those of other Obama supporters I know. They're still going to vote for him. They're too fed up with Bush, Iraq, and the economy to consider doing otherwise. But they don't feel the same passionate connection to Obama they once felt.

If anything, the events of the past week have probably sealed the deal for Obama. He will be elected president. All Americans can fervently hope and pray that when he takes office, he'll be a good and effective chief executive. We can also hope that the JFK-like detachment which, in the end is responsible for taking some of the bloom off Obama's rose, will dissipate and that a real man will step from behind the Kennedeyesque facade to become the leader the country needs.

In 2009, we don't need a president who emulates a ghost. We need a real person. My guess is that, if Obama can step out and become his real self, he can reconnect with those of his supporters who have become lukewarm and he can have an historic presidency.

[You can donate to this site. See here for more information.]


Michele Scaparrotti said...

I am really surprised that you have come out and said that you think Obama will be elected. I know there are more Dems than Reps, but I wonder if there are not more white males who normally vote democratic who will not do so this time. This could seriously erode his base - if white labor does not support a man of color.

Mark Daniels said...

First of all, I want to underscored that I endorse nobody. So, my prediction has nothing to do with supporting or not supporting candidate A or B.

Secondly, I've said since last year that, unless the Democrats exercised their penchant for self-destruction and the frequent Democratic tendency for coolness that I think hampers Obama as a candidate puts voters off, the conditions favor a Democratic win in 2008.

Even in the wake of military victory, "fatigue" causes voters to turn out the party in power during a war. Harry Truman in 1948 was a notable exception. But in 1920, the Democrats lost after World War 1, voters responding to Warren G. Harding's call for a "return to normalcy." In 1952, after years of Democratic activism, including two major wars, turned to Dwight Eisenhower. Something similar happened in England when, after World War 2, Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party were turned out of power. And, of course, George Bush the Elder lost in 1992, although he'd had a 90% approval rating immediately following the Gulf War.

And, of course, economic troubles can be fatal to the parties in power. Jimmy Carter's 1976 re-election bid wasn't hurt so much by the Iran hostage crisis as it was by stagflation. FDR ascended to the presidency because of the mass breakdown of the US economy.

This latter circumstance even created havoc in earlier periods of our history. Martin Van Buren, the architect of his predecessor, Andrew Jackson's election as president and the creator of the post-Jefferson Democratic Party, was repudiated by his own party when he sought re-election. The culprit: the economy. Democrat Grover Cleveland broke the post-Civil War Republican lock on the White House not once, but twice. One big reason is that voters blamed Republicans for a bad economy. (Cleveland was the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms as president.) He then lost the presidency for his party when the economy went into a depression during his second term.

Thirdly, a rule of thumb is that national security emergencies favor Republicans and economic ones favor Democrats. Each emergency circumstance is seen as being in the core competencies of the respective parties.

The sense of a national security emergency has waned among voters and, as is often the case, been supplanted by concerns over personal finances. With the current Wall Street crisis, Obama is getting a big bounce. The most recent poll, taken since Paulson and Bernanke announced the big bailout proposal, shows Obama up by nine points, his biggest lead since June. He's now ahead in states like Colorado, which hasn't voted for a Republican since 1996, I think.

Fourth: On the race issue, the polling I'm seeing indicates that something like 6% of the electorate admit that they will not vote for Obama because he is black. My experience indicates that the actual number may be slightly higher than that. But as his margin grows, that will become less of a problem for him. People will tend to vote with their perceived economic self-interest and right now, again according to the polling I'm reading, voters blame the Republicans for the economic situation. Under those circumstances, people who might not otherwise vote for a Democrat will be open to voting for Obama.

McCain has been a maverick who has had more than a few disagreements with President Bush. But, while people may not be buying the "third Bush term" argument, they're also exceedingly wary of voting Republican this year.

If Obama wins, it's likely that he will be the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to be elected with an actual majority. Carter and Clinton both came to office with electoral pluralities in three-way races.