Obama, the Showman-in-Chief

Appearances are at the center of Barack Obama's career. Those who believe he has never accomplished anything overlook his chosen career as a political impresario, a master of creating illusions that dazzle the public and capture its imagination. The label "celebrity" is no insult, but rather a tribute to Barack Obama's standing as an American master of novel and intriguing appearances, a successor-on-a-new-level to countless magicians, producers, promoters, and the grandaddy of the celebrity industry, P.T. Barnum.


Critics who bemoan the sparsely-filled boxes on his resume (President of the Harvard Law Review but no signed articles, Supreme Court clerkship, or high profile cases) miss the point. The titles Barack Obama has used -- community organizer, state senator, US Senator -- are like theatrical flats, intended to provide scenery, framing the performance he delivers on a daily basis. They were never intended to bear close scrutiny, and never would have but for the efforts of bloggers and National Review. So what if Illinois State Senate Majority Leader Emil Jones shined up his legislative record with credit for all sorts of bills? It still looks good enough for the intended audience, those who absorb images more readily than analytical tracts.

That audience isn't supposed to pay too much attention to the scenery, lest it spoil the illusion. Magicians and other illusionists understand that the public's deep wish to believe is all you need in order to direct the eye where you want it. That need to control the public's gaze is why the Obama campaign reacted with fury at scholarly Dr. Stanley Kurtz, a product of Harvard, the University of Chicago and the National Review, who started shining an unwelcome spotlight on his relationship with William Ayers. Ayers isn't even in the script; he was supposed to remain offstage. Would a Broadway show let a critic come in and direct the lighting onto the director and stagehands in the shadows?


Barack Obama first publicly demonstrated his talents as an impresario when working as a community organizer. Byron York of National Review wrote:

Obama then choreographed a drive to demand a new MET office. (The point, remember, was not for him to make the demands but for the leaders to do it for themselves.) They set up a meeting with MET officials, and then Obama drilled the leaders on what they should say. He took them around Roseland looking for a possible site for the new office. They found a shut-down department store at Michigan Avenue and 110th Street, and located the building's owners. "He did all the legwork for us and brought it back to us," Lloyd told me, "and we went downtown to the offices of the store and negotiated." In a climactic meeting at Our Lady of the Gardens - Obama had, once again, carefully rehearsed the leaders on what they should say - MET officials agreed to open the new office. Obama had an accomplishment to point to. [emphases added]


When Obama's political career began, it was at an event organized by his close collaborator at the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, William Ayers. Unknown are the lessons in staging such events that may have been passed to the younger man by the veteran organizer from the Weatherman terror faction. Ayers certainly had the experience of recasting his image from dangerous criminal to "progressive" intellectual and pillar of the Chicago establishment. He and his wife both found settings in congenial prestigious university environs that went a long way toward framing perceptions of them, presaging  Barack Obama joining the University of Chicago law faculty as a lecturer, without ever intellectually participating in university life.

Dramatis Personae

Any impresario understands the importance of careful control of the dramatis personae. So it is that Barack Obama
eliminated poor Alice Palmer and three other primary opponents from contention when he decided to run for her state senate seat, challenging petition signatures. In a later amazing coincidence, the campaigns of his most formidable primary and general election rivals were destroyed when inconvenient information about them became public.

Yesterday, Brian Ross wrote:

Police in Denver arrested an ABC News producer today as he and a camera crew were attempting to take pictures on a public sidewalk of Democratic senators and VIP donors leaving a private meeting at the Brown Palace Hotel.

The bit players can be very important dramatis personae when it comes to maintaining the illusion.

Mass Spectacles

It was during the primary campaign that Obama's skills as a master stager of public events came into focus. Craftily using a star rock band as a draw, a huge Sunday afternoon crowd was assembled in Portland, OR for a free concert. The crowd became a prop proclaiming the star power of the celebrity candidate. Barack Obama became "hot." The Berlin mass rally used the very same rock band strategy to assemble a large crowd.

Last night's Invesco Field event needed no such rock and roll lure, even though Sheryl Crow, among others, performed. Being there at The Moment became a popular ticket. As any NFL owner could tell you, the stadium draw can really add up when you have as many luxury boxes as Invesco Field.

Showdown for the Showman

The primary problem facing the Obama campaign over the next two-plus months is control of the setting and narrative. Maintaining the illusion of an idealistic over-achiever, a moderate man of the center and embodiment of our collective future, means that the critics must be ignored. He must stick to settings that reflect his strengths as an impresario.

Two contrary forces are at work.

As the Bard wrote, "Truth will Out."

The archives of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge will be yielding much more detail about the projects funded and not funded by the board Barack Obama chaired and to which William Ayers brought his projects for approval. Even if major media outlets boycott the subject, the McCain campaign, 527 groups, and the internet will not be deterred.

But then again, the electorate may expand as young people rise and vote. After all, P.T. Barnum  is widely believed to have said:

"There's a sucker born every minute."

Thomas Lifson is editor and publisher of American Thinker.