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Journalists, Glorying in Obama's Moment

Adulation of Obama has reached rare heights. Such media glorification can help a new president -- and raise impossible expectations.
Adulation of Obama has reached rare heights. Such media glorification can help a new president -- and raise impossible expectations.
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008

Perhaps it was the announcement that NBC News is coming out with a DVD titled "Yes We Can: The Barack Obama Story." Or that ABC and USA Today are rushing out a book on the election. Or that HBO has snapped up a documentary on Obama's campaign.

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Perhaps it was the Newsweek commemorative issue -- "Obama's American Dream" -- filled with so many iconic images and such stirring prose that it could have been campaign literature. Or the Time cover depicting Obama as FDR, complete with jaunty cigarette holder.

Are the media capable of merchandizing the moment, packaging a president-elect for profit? Yes, they are.

What's troubling here goes beyond the clanging of cash registers. Media outlets have always tried to make a few bucks off the next big thing. The endless campaign is over, and there's nothing wrong with the country pulling together, however briefly, behind its new leader. But we seem to have crossed a cultural line into mythmaking.

"The Obamas' New Life!" blares People's cover, with a shot of the family. "New home, new friends, new puppy!" Us Weekly goes with a Barack quote: "I Think I'm a Pretty Cool Dad." The Chicago Tribune trumpets that Michelle "is poised to be the new Oprah and the next Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis -- combined!" for the fashion world.

Whew! Are journalists fostering the notion that Obama is invincible, the leader of what the New York Times dubbed "Generation O"?

Each writer, each publication, seems to reach for more eye-popping superlatives. "OBAMAISM -- It's a Kind of Religion," says New York magazine. "Those of us too young to have known JFK's Camelot are going to have our own giddy Camelot II to enrapture and entertain us," Kurt Andersen writes. The New York Post has already christened it "BAM-A-LOT."

"Here we are," writes Salon's Rebecca Traister, "oohing and aahing over what they'll be wearing, and what they'll be eating, what kind of dog they'll be getting, what bedrooms they'll be living in, and what schools they'll be attending. It feels better than good to sniff and snurfle through the Obamas' tastes and habits. . . . Who knew we had in us the capacity to fall for this kind of idealized Americana again?"

But aren't media people supposed to resist this kind of hyperventilating?

"Obama is a figure, especially in pop culture, in a way that most new presidents are not," historian Michael Beschloss says. "Young people who may not be interested in the details of NAFTA or foreign policy just think Obama is cool, and they're interested in him. Being cool can really help a new president."

So can a sense of optimism, reflected on USA Today's front page. "Poll: Hopes soaring for Obama, administration," the headline said, with 65 percent saying "the USA will be better off 4 years from now."

But what happens when adulation gives way to the messy, incremental process of governing? When Obama has to confront a deep-rooted financial crisis, two wars and a political system whose default setting is gridlock? When he makes decisions that inevitably disappoint some of his boosters?


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