21 Sep 2008

The Incredible Shrinking Obama

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Rex Murphy, writing in the Canadian Globe And Mail, observes that the effulgent energy of the Obama candidacy came from sources external to itself, and seems to have entered an irreversible decline.

Most of the story of the campaign isn’t so much coming from the candidate himself as it is created by all those who, most in worshipful terms, have talked, written and reported on or about him. The Obama campaign is one great text generator, the grand fable of his fans.

In one sense, this is not surprising. He has a quicksilver quality. Even after two autobiographies, Mr. Obama remains something of a floating, uncrowded presence. His story (and he is so impressively self-aware as to have made the most acute comment on it) is temptingly open-ended, very much a page to be written on. He himself has written, most memorably: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”

That is as bold a statement as it is an insightful one. Bold, because it is a remarkable confession from a presidential hopeful. Insightful, because it matches the facts. There are not many personalities so fluid or vague on which an attempt to “project” a storyline would take hold. Imagine, for example, projecting a “rewrite” of Donald Rumsfeld. There’s too much of Mr. Rumsfeld already there to offer hospitality to new material.

Mr. Obama, however, has a kind of welcoming emptiness. Eager acolyte or stern observer, both find it difficult not to add, or project, the most flattering, even jubilant, fill-ins. The Obama candidacy, in its rocket-blast phase when he outsoared Hillary Clinton, drained the dictionaries of every superlative. The great “O” had them swooning in the stands. Why?

True, Oprah had passed her potent wand over him, but even the afternoon regent of a thousand therapies has stays on her sorcery. Mainly, his was very much a candidacy constructed by those who were drawn to him. If there was any meaning to that fortune-cookie poeticism that “we are the ones we have been waiting for,” it was that his campaign was a feedback loop. People saw what they came to see. Mr. Obama was the slate; the crowds brought their own chalk.

This is the nature of Mr. Obama’s particular kind of charisma. People project their best wishes on him, they fill in the blank of a very attractive and plausible outline. His is not, emphatically, a charisma of deeds. For what has he done, save run for president? He is an accommodating vessel – cool, smart, biracial and “unfinished.” This is the Gatsby quality of him that others have noted. Like Gatsby, he is a receptacle of others’ glamorous invention.

People see in him, or wish to see, the last great ideal of the American polity fulfilled, a final and full racial accommodation. That should he be elected president, America will have achieved, by his singular persona, the perfect emblematic demonstration of having exorcised at last the great stain of its racially riven origins.

Mr. Obama’s charisma is, in this sense, external, something extended to the candidate. And it follows that that which is given may equally be taken away. The sparkle has, in fact, dimmed. He travels now in a lower orbit, closer to Earth – which is to say, he grows more mundane. The great word “hope” sounds less frequently now. He picks a running mate thick with the dust and rancour of many long years in Washington.

His acceptance speech in the Olympic-style stadium could not gather the inspirational energy of his earlier arias. Of late, the flash supernova of U.S. politics is seen “competing” with a second-on-the-ticket female governor of a remote state. There’s more than a gap between the “audacity of hope” and “lipstick on a pig.” The mouth that spoke the first phrase should not be capable of the second.

He has shrunk into a combative partisan. He crowds his own screen, leaves less space for projection. Others are not writing his narrative now – he’s inscribing his own.

A candidacy that leached so much of its energy and drive from the imagination of others, Gatsby-like, is shedding its gift. The narrative stage is over. It’s all tactics from here on in.

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