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.
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?
"We're celebrating a moment as much as a man, I think," says Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham, whose new issue, out today, compares Obama to Lincoln. "Given our racial history, an hour or two of commemoration seems appropriate. But there is no doubt that the glow of the moment will fade, and I am sure the coverage will reflect that in due course."
One of the few magazines to strike a skeptical tone is the London-based Economist, which endorsed Obama. "With such a victory come unreasonably great expectations," its lead editorial says.
Web worship of Obama is nearly limitless. On YouTube alone, the Obama Girl song, "I've Got a Crush on Obama," has been viewed 11.7 million times. Even an unadorned video of the candidate's election night speech in Chicago has drawn 3.5 million views.
I am not trying to diminish the sheer improbability of what this African American politician, a virtual unknown four years ago, has accomplished. Every one of us views his victory through a personal lens. I thought of growing up in a "Leave It to Beaver" era, when there were no blacks in leading television roles until Bill Cosby was tapped as the co-star of "I Spy" in 1965. When the Watts riots broke out that year, the Los Angeles Times sent an advertising salesman to cover it because the paper had no black reporters. The country has traveled light-years since then.
It is hard to find a precedent in American history. Ronald Reagan was a marquee star because of his Hollywood career, but mainly among older voters, since he made his last movie 16 years before winning the White House in 1980. Jack Kennedy was a more formal figure after winning the 1960 election -- "trying to look older than he was, because he thought youth was a handicap in running for president," Beschloss says -- but quickly took on larger-than-life dimensions.
"The Kennedy buildup goes on," James MacGregor Burns wrote in the New Republic in the spring of 1961. "The adjectives tumble over one another. He is not only the handsomest, the best-dressed, the most articulate, and graceful as a gazelle. He is omniscient; he swallows and digests whole books in minutes; he confounds experts with his superior knowledge of their field. He is omnipotent."
Soon afterward, Kennedy blundered into the Bay of Pigs debacle.
The media would be remiss if they didn't reflect the sense of unadulterated joy that greeted Obama's election, both here and around the world, and the pride even among those who opposed him. Newspapers were stunned and delighted at the voracious demand for post-election editions, prompting The Washington Post and other papers to print hundreds of thousands of extra copies and pocket the change. (When else have we felt so loved lately?) Demand for inaugural tickets has been unprecedented. Barack is suddenly a hot baby name. Record companies are releasing hip-hop songs, by the likes of Jay-Z and Will.I.Am, with such titles as "Pop Champagne for Barack." Consumers, the Los Angeles Times reports, are buying up "Obama-themed T-shirts, buttons, bobblehead dolls, coffee mugs, wine bottles, magnets, greeting cards, neon signs, mobile phones and framed art prints."
A barrage of Obama-related books are in the works. Newsweek's quadrennial election volume is titled "A Long Time Coming: The Historic, Combative, Expensive and Inspiring 2008 Election and the Victory of Barack Obama." Publishers obviously see a bull market.
MSNBC, which was accused of cheerleading for the Democratic nominee during the campaign, is running promos that say: "Barack Obama, America's 44th president. Watch as a leader renews America's promise." What are viewers to make of that?
There is always a level of excitement when a new president is coming to town -- new aides to profile, new policies to dissect, new family members to follow. But can anyone imagine this kind of media frenzy if John McCain had managed to win?
Obama's days of walking on water won't last indefinitely. His chroniclers will need a new story line. And sometime after Jan. 20, they will wade back into reality.