January 14, 2008
Obama as Liberal MessiahBy J.R. Dunn
When liberals refer to "leaders", they're not talking about the same thing as everybody else. One of the first acts of national leadership carried out by George Washington was to reject a crown. He was motivated by his personal sense of noblesse oblige, his awareness that he was setting an example of republican virtue. And the gesture was accepted in exactly that sense. Rather than imitate any of the rotten political systems of Europe, the U.S. would create its own, with a totally new interpretation of the role of the national leader.
A "leader" in the American sense is someone chosen to act as chief executive to handle a particular task for a particular period. He is a member of the team - the chief member, perhaps, but still a teammate. The fact that he is president is no different, except in scale, from someone running a charity drive, a company, or the army. The individual does the job, is suitably rewarded, and goes home. This system has its complexities (much of the structure of our government is in place to defeat the tendencies toward tyranny that afflicted every previous democracy on record without exception) and its drawbacks, but it has served this country well for over two centuries.
One of its major benefits is that it does away with much of the baggage surrounding the concept of "leader" as it's understood in most of the world - the mystical, semi-divine nonsense that makes it so easy for "leader" to slide into "despot". People will invade their neighbors, slaughter minorities, and march themselves right off the historical cliff on behalf of a duce, führer, or caudillo. They generally won't for a chief executive.
It somehow comes as no surprise that American liberals have been trying to undo this innovation for much of the past century. To a convinced liberal, a leader is in no way limited to anything as mundane as running a country. A leader is a transcendent being, someone more than human, someone with a touch of the divine. Leaders don't handle tasks, they lead movements, they embody the spirit of the age. They transform. Leaders, to put it simply, are führers.
This explains why liberals are so attracted to tyrants on the international scene. Stalin is the classic historical example (for a dose of political hagiography at its most nauseating, see the film Mission to Moscow) though we've witnessed the same type of thing more recently involving Castro and Hugo Chavez. The search for this precise type of idol explains the visits to Chavez by the Sean Penns and Naomi Campbells. The fact that they've settled for Chavez, who on his best day reminds me of nothing more than a crazier Manuel Noriega, shows how pathological this urge can be.
The first American example of the new messianism was FDR. (Woodrow Wilson might have seen himself in the role, but certainly nobody else did.) It's doubtful that Roosevelt, down-to-earth as he was, took it very seriously, much as he might have enjoyed it. He took advantage of what was useful in the role and dismissed the more outré aspects. Whatever his faults, FDR was no monster. American Augustus he might have been, but he left no trail of Neros or Caligulas to follow him.
Then we come to JFK, who set the image in concrete. Again, Kennedy did not seek the role - it was thrust on him, in large part retroactively, thanks to his assassination. But ever since, liberals have been searching for another example, for a JFK reborn to lead them to... well, lead them somewhere. Bobby Kennedy attempted to consciously assume the role, and might have taken it all the way if he hadn't been shot.
Since that time, the Democrats have produced various candidates for messiah in between their standard run of policy wonks and burnt-out senators. Most have been examined and found wanting. (Bill Clinton was too much of a good ‘ol boy for the role, and as for his lady wife... One of the most grotesque spectacles of recent politics has been the campaign to portray Hillary as a born leader. Does anybody else recall Liza Minelli at some 90s Academy Award ceremony marching back and forth and singing "Hillary will lead the way"? No? Well - maybe I imagined it.)
Barack Obama is our new liberal messiah, offering redemption for our country's original sin. In the early stages of the campaign, he was viewed as a nice fella with an interesting background and a sad lack of real experience. But now we're asked to believe that at some point, perhaps while flying between Ottoumwa and Dubuque, the Mandate of Heaven settled on his shoulders, and he became "The new JFK" (the Times of London), "a glamorous and romantic figure" (the New York Sun), "the hope of a new generation" (everybody).
Here is Gary Kamiya of Salon:
Uh-huh. And here is Nicholas Wapshott, in the New York Sun:
There don't seem to have been many purple thumbs in New Hampshire. But enough -- we could go on for page after page of this stuff, and in then end, it all sounds the same.
In truth, Obama is an impressive pol -- far more so than he is given credit for. Particularly enjoyable is the way he has repeatedly filleted Madame Hillary without in the least tarnishing his image as Mr. Clean. This is great politics. If he plays his cards right, Obama will be around for a good long time.
But the first thing he needs to do is to shed the role of political messiah as fast as he can manage. It is all defect, without a single redeeming feature. (JFK? Doesn't anybody realize what a curse they're laying on the guy?)
Above all, it's a confession of liberal failure, a form of nostalgia for the good old days when FDR and JFK ruled the roost and things were done right. The fact that there's nobody around today to compare to all this legendry (most of which is bogus in any case) becomes all too apparent. The voters do pick it up.
Another drawback is that followers tend to blame everything on the leader. They have handed themselves and their fates over to this more-than-human figure. Whatever transpires after that is not their responsibility, but his. So in the case of failure, they turn on their onetime savior with fury. Obama could still lead the party as the guy who almost pulled it off - either the nomination or the election. He cannot do so as a failed messiah.
Obama needs to take a cue from Ronald Reagan. Party leader, revolutionary, a man responsible for as much in the way of change as FDR himself. But he didn't come across as anything preternatural. Far from it. Partly this is due to the nature of the GOP - Republicans simply don't need that kind of emotional crutch. But much of it is explained by Reagan's personality and his tendency to operate behind the scenes, to let others carry out his plans. Reagan didn't require credit for everything that occurred under his watch. That's is one of the secrets of the American style of leadership, one that the Democrats as a whole have yet to learn.
Reagan was defeated for the nomination in 1976 only to come roaring back in 1980. Obama won't take the prize this year - not against the Clinton machine. But there's always 2012 and 2016. This year's election can either position him or finish him. That's up to no one else but Barack Obama.
While he'll never get my vote, he's an interesting and attractive figure, a lot more so than anybody else the Dems have presented us with since the 60s. Having a Barack Obama in the driver's seat would be a marked improvement on the Clintons, Reid, Pelosi, Dean, Schumer, et al. And who knows, he may turn out to be the man who at last leads the Democrats beyond the need for this kind of adolescent hero worship. Somebody ought to do it.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.