Our New Pop Culture Icons

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008 9:38 AM

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 can.

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 myth-making.

"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 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 a 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.In related news . . . Not surprisingly, we are still grappling with the impact of breaking the streak of 43 white presidents, as the Boston Globe reports:

"Now that Obama will become the first African-American to enter the White House as president, black voters are still trying to comprehend the scope of the accomplishment, struggling to find words beyond incredible and unbelievable. His election has also triggered a determination among some to make changes in themselves and their own communities -- to walk the new walk, not just talk about it."

Everyone wants something from the new guy. Here's another Globe report:

"Before a huge crowd in San Diego last summer, Barack Obama vowed to make fixing illegal immigration a top priority as president, and Latinos nationwide responded with massive support for him on Election Day. Now, they are pressing him to keep his promise."

This L.A. Times piece is another indication:

"With the inauguration about nine weeks away, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster is seeking $111 million to replace 28 miles of storm drains. State Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) is talking up $321 million for sewage-treatment plants and clean-water facilities.

"Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl wants a light-rail line to Los Angeles International Airport. And money for homeless veterans. And did he mention universal healthcare? . . .

"Jubilant over the arrival of a Democrat in the White House, government agencies across this heavily Democratic state are hoping not just for a piece of an upcoming stimulus package but also for four years of a California-friendly administration."

Multiply that by 49 other states and you get an idea of what's in store.

Being president has its perks -- nice house, a chef, your own nuclear arsenal. But there are drawbacks:

"For years, like legions of other professionals, Mr. Obama has been all but addicted to his BlackBerry," the NYT discloses. "The device has rarely been far from his side -- on most days, it was fastened to his belt -- to provide a singular conduit to the outside world as the bubble around him grew tighter and tighter throughout his campaign.

" 'How about that?' Mr. Obama replied to a friend's congratulatory e-mail message on the night of his victory.

"But before he arrives at the White House, he will probably be forced to sign off. In addition to concerns about e-mail security, he faces the Presidential Records Act, which puts his correspondence in the official record and ultimately up for public review, and the threat of subpoenas. A decision has not been made on whether he could become the first e-mailing president, but aides said that seemed doubtful."

One reason Obama won has nothing to do with race, says National Review's Rich Lowry:

"Ah, the blush of youth. Twenty-five years younger than his opponent, the 47-year-old Barack Obama benefited at the polls from his youthfulness, and it will make his honeymoon all the more ardent. If race ended up a no-show in the election, age played a bigger role than expected. The Obama campaign openly exploited it in an ad noting that John McCain came to Washington in 1982 and doesn't use e-mail. The e-mail hit may have been unfair; McCain has difficulty typing because of his Vietnam injuries. But the evocation of 1982 made the point cleanly enough: If you're under age 26, McCain has been in Washington longer than you've been alive.

"The persistent line of attack against McCain for being 'erratic' evoked an old man lurching confusedly. The signature Obama put-down of McCain for being 'out of touch' had an added resonance against a 72-year-old opponent . . .

"As for Obama, he'll continue to garner magazine covers not just because he's making history, but because there's something inherently hopeful about having a young family in the White House. The Obamas will be the most picturesque first family since the Kennedys, and any young president -- make that any young Democratic president -- creates instant Camelot comparisons."

Peggy Noonan offers yet another reason why Obama was appealing:

"People hadn't heard of Mr. Obama two years ago, they know they don't really know him now, and they just gave him the presidency. America threw long, and America is praying for a dazzling reception. People want him to catch the ball . . .

"Part of the mystery of Mr. Obama is that he is cool, and this makes him different from his recent predecessors. We are coming off two hot presidents. With Bill Clinton, there was always a sense that he was trying to rein in his emotions and tamp down purple rage. He was red-faced, indignant at the reporter who had the temerity to pepper him with unexpected questions. With George W. Bush, also, there was an emotionalism, a sense of high sentiment with sharp rhetoric -- you're either with us or against us. In the case of both presidents it is arguable that emotions affected policy. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, has an air of natural restraint, of reserve. He's one cool cat, perhaps even one chilly customer."

WP ombudsman Deborah Howell offers suggestions for combating liberal bias in newspapers:

"Are there ways to tackle this? More conservatives in newsrooms and rigorous editing would be two. The first is not easy: Editors hire not on the basis of beliefs but on talent in reporting, photography and editing, and hiring is at a standstill because of the economy. But newspapers have hired more minorities and women, so it can be done."

I've been saying for a long time that newsrooms need political diversity, not just racial and gender diversity. But it's not that easy to accomplish. Do we want editors grilling applicants about their political opinions in interviews for jobs where they're supposed to keep their personal views out of their work? And conservatives have told me that many of their stripe don't apply for MSM jobs, preferring instead to go into opinion magazines where they can make conservative arguments. If mainstream outlets contribute to that trend by making them feel less than welcome, that's a major problem.

But here, for a change, is a defense against the charge that the MSM helped Obama win the election:

"Oh, please . . . The mainstream media reflected what was happening in this nation. It did not drive it. The blogs didn't drive this movement. The media didn't drive this movement. Barack Obama did not lose this election. It was his to lose, it was not John McCain's to win. The Republicans had no shot unless the Democrats gave it to them, and they didn't. And to blame the media is a cop-out and ridiculous. We are always here to be blamed by people like you who enjoy that activity. We always will be. When the Democrats lost last time, it was our fault. When the Republicans lost this time, it was our fault. It's not."

The speaker? Fox News anchor Shepard Smith. He was responding, on the air, to comedian Nick DiPaolo declaring that the media were "in the tank" for Obama. Go Shep.

Which is not to say that Obama didn't benefit from awfully favorable coverage. But the news business isn't quite as powerful as its detractors imagine. Ronald Reagan and both Bushes managed to win five elections despite what they saw as a biased media. We don't have the ability to stop a determined president from taking the country to war, though we certainly should have done a better job in the run-up to Iraq. And we didn't bamboozle the country into voting for Barack. The man won North Carolina, for cryin' out loud. He must have been on to something.

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