Can Mr. Cool Get Hot?

By David Ignatius
Thursday, October 11, 2007

Politics is about self-control and staying on message. But it's also about letting go. And it's this second attribute -- the politician's equivalent of getting "into the zone" -- that Sen. Barack Obama will have to discover if he wants to ignite voters and win the Democratic nomination.

Great presidents share this trait with actors -- the ability to enter into the moment so totally that they lose themselves and bond with their audience. Franklin D. Roosevelt could create a sense of easy intimacy even back in the days of radio. John F. Kennedy was "graceful" precisely in his unscripted moments of irreverence and wit. Ronald Reagan, too, mastered the art of controlled spontaneity; people accused him of reading his lines, but his real gift was an actor's ability to improvise.

Obama is certainly charismatic, so much so that people often describe him as a rock star on the campaign trail. But he's more Paul McCartney than Mick Jagger -- so cool and self-conscious that it's hard to imagine him saying "let it bleed." He may be the smartest candidate in either party this year, and also the most visionary. But traveling with him, you get the sense that he's tight as a tick. He's Mr. Cool, holding himself back, wary of letting audiences see either his passion or his vulnerability.

In a biography of Robert F. Kennedy, journalist Evan Thomas describes another tightly wound politician who found a way to let go -- and in the process moved his candidacy into a different gear. RFK is such an icon now that we forget how cold and calculating he was through most of his career, the opposite of his elegant and witty older brother. But something happened.

A turning point was a speech at Kansas State University the day after the brooding Kennedy finally announced he would run. "His voice flat and stammering, his right leg shaking, Kennedy began tentatively, but then cut loose," Thomas writes, and an aide said "the field house sounded like it was inside Niagara Falls." Thomas quotes campaign reporter Jules Witcover on how Kennedy fed off the roiling response: "He himself seemed to be pulled up on it like a small boy on a towering seaside breaker, riding it willingly, daringly, with evident exhilaration."

I've watched Obama, in person and in some of the dozens of campaign clips assembled on YouTube. The man gives a good speech, but it's distanced. He senses the crest of that wave RFK mounted, but then he seems to pull back, keeping himself in check. Even his voice modulates downward toward the end of a big sentence, robbing it of its full power.

Nobody tells the story of the American dream better than Obama, as he did in his address to the 2004 Democratic convention, which three years later remains his galvanizing political moment. But I sense more reserve now and less exuberance. It's like the difference between Obama's two autobiographies: The first, "Dreams From My Father," is a remarkable book. The author lets go -- confiding details of his drug use, his sex life, his journey of self-discovery. By the second installment, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama has become a politician, measuring his words. It's not a bad book, but it has been leached of emotion.

One senses that Obama is looking for a higher gear. He reached for a Reagan moment in a speech on health care in Iowa City in May, telling the story of a couple facing bankruptcy after one of them had a bout with cancer. Reagan could have made you weep, telling that story, but Obama's delivery was flat and impersonal. Obama hasn't been able to project a sense of humor, either. In private, you sense that he has a self-deprecating wit and a sense of the absurd. But it rarely surfaces in public, where he often displays an earnest self-seriousness that makes Al Gore seem lighthearted.

When Bobby Kennedy finally put all the pieces together in the 1968 California primary race, he became a different candidate. His adviser Richard Goodwin wrote: "The change in Kennedy was startling. The frantic sense of the early campaign, the harsh, punched lines, defensively seeking assurance in assertion and command of fact, were gone. There was now an easy grace, a strength that was unafraid of softness."

Does Obama have that ability to let go? He is behind Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points in the polls, and even Democrats who like him worry that the nomination may soon be out of his reach. We'll find out during the next few months if Obama has that higher gear -- that ability to lose himself in the power of the moment. If he doesn't, he's going to lose.

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