Barack Obama is hot, hot, hot. Comparisons leap to mind — Eugene McCarthy and his student legion, eager to shave, bathe and “get clean for Gene,” even George Wallace in early September of ‘68.
The Internet is awash with tributes, declarations of undying fealty, pornographic mash notes, even love songs: “… you can barack me tonight ….” The Internet is awash with millions of dollars for the man from Illinois. If Hillary Clinton isn’t terrified, she should be.
It’s difficult for even the most level-headed pundits and pros to step far enough back to cast a cool-enough eye on the proceedings. Geoff Elliott, the Washington correspondent for the Australian, the national newspaper, compares the Obamafication of the American presidential campaign, or at least the Democratic half of it, to the deification of Nelson Mandella in South Africa two decades ago. He recalls the Mandella stump speech promising that “when elected every household will have a washing machine,” and when the candidate actually became the president, clerks in Cape Town department stores turned away crowds of South Africans demanding their free washers and dryers.
The promise of a free washing machine was meant as metaphor, to be no more exacting than the famous American promise of a chicken in every pot, of Huey Long’s vow to make every man a king. Politicians count on their constituents to discount such promises as entertaining demagoguery. Sometimes they don’t. Many of the millions of Americans who have succumbed to Obama fever — male, female, white, black, young, old — give the impression they would stand in line for free Kool-Aid.
“How does a cult figure, in the eyes of some something akin to a messiah,” asks the Australian, “make the transition to a political frontrunner — president even — where disappointment will soon crush what seemed to be a journey to a promised land?” It’s the question nobody wants to hear.
Barack Obama’s great gift is to persuade his audiences to fill in the spaces in his speeches he leaves deliberately blank. This particularly infuriates Hillary and her followers, stuck with a record consisting of the specifics of dozens of policies, proposals and promises, while Barack Obama offers a blank slate to anyone who inquires about specifics. He speaks in parables flavored with nuance and evasion. His rhetoric, sometimes brushing eloquence, dazzles the young and innocent, particularly those who have never sat in the pews of black churches to fall under the spell of powerful preaching of the Gospel.
The senator’s boast of his early opposition to the war in Iraq and his implied indifference to the demands of the larger war against terror further infuriate those who regard radicals in the Islamic world as real, the hour as late.
“The great weapon the [Islamic radicals] have is persistence and patience,” Michael Chertoff, the director of homeland security, warned only yesterday, “and the one weakness that we have is the tendency to lose patience and become complacent. It strikes me as hard to accept that anybody would believe the threat is over. There is nothing these terrorists are doing or saying that could lead a reasonable person to believe that they have somehow lost interest. Our biggest challenge is making sure we do not drop our guard because time passes.”
Nobody listening to the man from Illinois wants to hear real-world stuff like this, not when you can groove to the mellow rhythms of the mesmerizing song of a messiah. Barack Obama is regarded even by his critics as sui generis, truly one of a kind, but his followers are like those of Chauncey Gardiner, the Peter Sellers character in the movie “Being There,” who is mistaken by the gullible masses for a wise man, whose casual remarks (“… first we plant the seed, then the sun and rains come, and the plant matures …”) are taken as political science for the ages. You can’t blame Barack Obama for seizing whatever is offered by glassy-eyed seekers of a bargain-basement nirvana. We can be grateful that the magic of America is its ability to ride out storms.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.
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