July 9, 2008
Axelrod's Fall Riefenstahl StrategyBy Lee Cary
This fall, watch for David Axelrod, Obama's campaign manager, to choreograph at least two post-convention mass events at least slightly reminiscent of the stagecraft of Leni Riefenstahl in 1934 Germany.
Ms. Riefenstahl first heard her idol at a 1932 rally. She was enthralled by his public speaking ability and became a devotee, dedicating her genius to making films that deified The Leader. Her 1934 work entitled "Triumph of the Will," documenting a mass rally in Nuremberg, remains a movie classic with its pioneering dramatic camera work and superbly suggestive imagery.
Riefenstahl, a former dancer, put a camera on a semi-circular track and did a continuous rolling shoot that revolved 180 degrees around the stationary Leader, projecting his firm, unwavering, demigod-like resolve before adoring masses eager to be rescued. The film is still widely regarded as the most innovative and effective propaganda piece ever made.
Watch for a reincarnation of the Riefenstahl Strategy this fall coming from the Obama Campaign. It will start on August 29.
Barack Obama has mastered the big-audience platform speech. Not since William Jennings Bryan, "The Boy Orator of the Platte," and Democratic Party presidential nominee in 1896, 1900 and 1908, has an American politician catapulted into prominence based largely on oratorical skills. And Bryan had no teleprompter.
Obama's widely-televised primary speeches cemented his image as a stirring, motivational speaker. His followers swooned. Hollywood personalities heralded him as an evolutionary politician. Collectively, the old news media said, "Oooooh!"
Since then, his speeches have failed to reach the euphoric glorification of those early events, which were essentially the same speech reworked for each occasion.
So, for now, the worm has turned away from Obama in that venue. But not to worry; it'll turn back strong when he delivers his acceptance speech at Denver's Invesco Field before tens of thousands of adoring, cheering fans on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.
At that event, the partisan nominee will be transformed into the Chosen One of the nation. He will no longer just belong to Democrats, but to all America. Some of us will watch with alarm. Others will feel their spirits lifted.
The camera will pan the stands -- old and young, white and black and brown. Families will hold up small children to see him from afar. Variable camera angles will capture his profiles, his smile, his gestures. Michelle and the girls will thrill the crowd with a wave projected on the large stadium screen. In response, the crowd will lift a collective cheer.
Someone close to the mike will shout, "We love you, Obama." He will echo, "I love you back." The camera will focus close on one, perhaps two, with hankies held to their eyes. Tears because he has come, and they are the ones for whom they've waited.
This mega-event will be the high-water mark of the Obama campaign. But it won't end there. It'll kick-off a short series of mass-audience events. (Is Madison Square Garden booked yet by the Obama campaign? And a venue in Florida? Or Michigan, perhaps?) A "short series" because this is something that can be overdone. But Axelrod et al won't overdo it.
Meanwhile, until the Democratic Party convention, Obama's staff will tightly control his appearances to avoid the gaffes he makes when speaking off-the-cuff in casual settings. Away from the teleprompter, he has feet of clay. Sometimes wet and slippery clay. His staff, alert to the danger, will manage his schedule to keep him safe from himself. The old media news won't like it, but they'll trundle along. After all, they're waist deep in the tank for him.
So, regarding Obama's big-speech prowess, we're in the lowlands of an emotional curve. We await the post-convention surge when his campaign stages events that will eclipse his earlier speeches in size and stagecraft. For its part, the old media will herald each successive extravaganza as evidence of a mounting ground swell for an Obama victory.
These fall events will be less congratulatory than his acceptance speech. They'll aim to project an image of thoughtful substance. The Presumptive President will artfully smooth over the rough edges of the gaffes and inconsistencies that surfaced in the middle earth between the last primary and the convention. They were/are calculated to reposition him in the middle. And they're working. This fall he'll chide any criticism as reflecting the old politics and dismiss Republicans as champions of the status quo.
In mass events after the Denver convention, Obama will recreate the histrionics of his primary speeches when adoring, sleep-depraved, enthusiastic campaign workers shared the triumph of victory. This fall, all the People will share in his coming victory, for it will mean their redemption from anxiety about the future through the Hope he brings for real Change. Obama will slide back into his original campaign themes as he closes toward November.
Fall media coverage will focus on the Obama Phenomena with even more intensity than before. For the final two months of the campaign, we'll be indoctrinated with episodes from the narrative arc of his life history. We'll hear, often, of the historical significance of his political ascendancy as a black man. Panels of television prophets will exalt his story in the genre of legend. All this will come in a steady progression to his assumptive victory as projected by the old news media.
Meanwhile, McCain, who has already missed several opportunities to crack the Obama façade, probably will fade deeper into the background as he becomes a supporting actor in the high drama of His Coming. McCain, the requisite contra-Obama figure. Moses' Aaron.
All this as Barack Obama steps firmly onto the stage of Marshall McLuhan's "global village" when, to paraphrase McLuhan, the incarnate medium becomes the message.
If all this comes to pass, some of us who support the crusty, combative, former Navy pilot who reveres Teddy Roosevelt may still be wondering what we wonder today? Which is...
When will McCain answer the bell and fight like hell?