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Posted by on Feb 18, 2008 in Politics | 3 comments

The Trouble With Too Much Charisma

Those who oppose him in both parties are attacking Barack Obama with a double-barreled cultural stereotype, the old film noir thesis that good looks can be deceptive and dangerous combined with a Jim Jones analogy about followers suicidally drinking in hope with laced Kool-Aid.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian and Clinton supporter, observes, “What is troubling about the campaign is that it’s gone beyond hope and change to redemption.” He claims that Obama is “posing as a figure who is the one person who will redeem our politics. And what I fear is, that ends up promising more from politics than politics can deliver.”

Earlier this week, Paul Krugman wrote that “the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality.”

Today’s Times piece quotes Norman Mailer describing JFK’s arrival at the Democratic convention in 1960, “the prince and the beggars of glamour staring at one another across a city street.”

The reporter should have gone further into Mailer’s musings on Kennedy. Substitute “African-American” for “Catholic” in this passage:

“With such a man in office, the myth of the nation would again be engaged, and the fact that he was a Catholic would engage the mind of the White Protestant. For the first time in our history, the Protestant would have the pain and creative luxury of feeling himself in some tiny degree part of a minority, and that was an experience which might be incommensurable in its value to the best of them.”

It’s understandable that detractors would try to equate Obama’s emotional appeal to lack of substance. In the 1960s, when I was editing McCalls, an advertiser told me, “Your competitors say the magazine looks so good that readers don’t get to the ads.”

“If I had to sell a dull magazine,” I answered, “I might make say that too, but if you can’t get people to pay attention, they won’t respond to anything.”

This year, Obama is getting voters to pay attention, and his opponents are reduced to finding fault with that.

Cross-posted from my blog.