In the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, described as "a classic commentary on narcissism, decadence, and the wages of sin," author Oscar Wilde wrote:
Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.
An empty canvas was offered by Barack Obama in the prologue of his book, The Audacity of Hope, with his admission: "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views," and "my treatment of the issues is often partial and incomplete."
Obama's appeal comes not from the things he says, but from who is saying them ... half-Kenyan and raised in Hawaii by white grandparents from Kansas.
Listen to Obama: "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America." These unremarkable words, spoken at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, set off wild applause.
Without a doubt, Obama first sat for his presidential portrait in 2004 with that famous speech.
An infatuated electorate, tutored by the tingly-legged artists of the mainstream media, proceeded to paint Obama's picture without much intensive study of their model, with some actually afraid to look more closely or critically for fear of being labeled "racist." The media contributed fawning essays and flattering photographs to the gallery, selectively publishing only those that projected a stately demeanor, their admiration evident in shots with lighting resembling a halo. Inspired voters did indeed "project their own views" on Obama's blank canvas. They painted him as their war-ender and bringer of peace, or savior of the economy; political uniter; race unifier; environmental champion; endorser of gay marriage; protector of women's rights; fellow Muslim or Christian; fellow liberal, Communist, or Socialist; wealth redistributionist; brilliant professor; etc. Obama proclaimed, "We are the ones we've been waiting for," and he effectively became a mirror for his fans.
For many, the opportunity to elect an African-American president was considered a reckoning of our nation's unseemly history of slavery and racial tension. Some assumed Obama's "dreams" from his father to be similar to Dr. King's famous dream, or imagined Obama's community organizing as something more akin to community service and charity. Others found Obama an inspired artist with a vision to "fundamentally transform" America, but few bothered to evaluate his talent or experience, examine a blueprint of the transformation, or even understand his perspective.
I recently received this anonymous quote in a much-forwarded e-mail:
The danger to America is not Barack Obama, but a citizenry capable of entrusting a man like him with the Presidency. It will be far easier to limit and undo the follies of an Obama presidency than to restore the necessary common sense and good judgment to a depraved electorate willing to have such a man for their president.
The problem is much deeper and far more serious than Mr. Obama, who is a mere symptom of what ails America. Blaming the prince of the fools should not blind anyone to the...multitude of fools such as those who made him their president.
Unlike a lovely impressionist painting in which thousands of carefully placed, tiny strokes of color create a work of art pleasing to the eye, this multitude painted a portrait of Obama out of a dissonant hodgepodge of individual smudges, a strikingly unflattering and chaotic image of our nation's economic, political, and moral turmoil.
The reality is that the 2008 election was not about the man Obama, or even this portrait of Obama painted by the electorate, but rather the reflection of the character of the painter -- the people of America who voted for Obama.
Many of Obama's voters, even if failing to realize the folly of their own ideas and the resulting havoc on our nation, are beginning to see the unattractive economic consequences of this fantasy portrait, or at the very least the humanity of the portrait's subject. Obama's recent tax cut compromise shattered his image in the eyes of more than a few of his most ardent supporters in the public, the media, and the Democratic Party.
The other night Pennsylvania's Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, was on "Hardball" sounding reasonable on the subject of Mr. Obama, but I thought his eyes, his visage, his professionally pleasant face were screaming: Those crazy birthers are wrong, he's not from another country -- he's from another galaxy! He doesn't do politics like any normal person!
Other disenchanted fans lament, however, that Obama has now in fact shown himself to be quite normal -- a normal politician, more concerned about his prospects for reelection than the lofty principles they imagined he shared with them.
Wilde's Dorian Gray, when the object of his affection (whom he had dreamed "a great artist," and "had given his love to her because he had thought her great") disappointed him with a lackluster theater performance, similarly lamented:
You have killed my love. You used to stir my imagination. Now you don't even stir my curiosity. You simply produce no effect. I loved you because you were marvellous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realised the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art. You have thrown it all away. You are shallow and stupid.
Unlike Newsweek's Evan Thomas, who once described his vision of Obama "standing above the world" as a "sort of God," most reasonable Americans understand that Obama is only human, after all, and are realistic enough to avoid projecting the impossibility of perfection on anyone. Obama, however, empowered by his adoring public, at times does seem prone to such narcissistic weakness, appearing to wear the crown of a king rather than the robe of a public servant. Mike Pence, in his powerful speech on the presidency at Hillsdale College, wisely stated:
[W]e as a people are not to be ruled and not to be commanded...the president should never forget this; that he has not risen above us, but is merely one of us, chosen by ballot, dismissed after his term, tasked not to transform and work his will upon us, but to bear the weight of decision and to carry out faithfully the design laid down in the Constitution and impassioned by the Declaration of Independence.
Pence also said, "The presidency is the most visible thread that runs through the tapestry of the American government."
The fabric of the Constitution, woven into a mantle and placed on one's shoulders by the votes of the American people, when faithfully and humbly worn, provides the inspiration to paint the most honorable and powerful presidential portrait of all. A renewed focus on education of our constitutional principles would equip our country with the vision to fully behold and appreciate the true and lasting beauty of such a picture.