Conspiracy

The Politics of Projection

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Virginia Postrel has sharp piece on Barack Obama in The Atlantic, arguing that the candidate's personality cult and the conspiracy theories that dog him ultimately emerge from the same source:

Barack Obama has brought glamour back to American politics–not the faux glamour-by-association of campaigning with movie stars or sailing with the Kennedys, but the real thing. The candidate himself is glamorous. Audiences project onto him the personal qualities and political positions they want in a president. They look at Obama and see their hopes and dreams.

Glamour is more than beauty or stage presence. You can't generate it just by having a wife who dresses like Jackie Kennedy. Glamour is a beautiful illusion–the word glamour originally meant a literal magic spell–that promises to transcend ordinary life and make the ideal real. It depends on a special combination of mystery and grace. Too much information breaks the spell. So does obvious effort….

Like any candidate, Obama of course has position papers on specific issues. But even well-informed observers disagree about whether he represents the extreme left wing of the Democratic party or something more market-oriented and centrist. As the NAFTA flap demonstrates, his supporters can't even decide what the candidate really thinks about free trade. His glamour makes it easy to imagine that a President Obama would dissolve differences, abolish hard choices, and achieve political consensus–or that he's a stealth candidate who will translate his vague platform into a mandate for whatever policies you the voter happen to support.

Where optimists fill in mystery with their hopes, however, pessimists project their fears. The flip side of glamour is horror: the vampire, the con man, the femme fatale, the double agent. These glamorous archetypes remind us of how easy it is to succumb to desire and manipulation. What, ask his opponents, is Obama hiding?

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  1. So is Obama Jesus or Damien? Just tell me, I’d like to stop guessing.

  2. I didn’t know libertarians were so gushy. Someone tell Ginnie to turn it down a notch.

    Presidential candidates have a remarkable ability to produce this sort of talk. Wasn’t Reagan “glamourous”? Not to me, but to a lot of people. Lots of people gushed over the seriously unglamourous H. Ross Perot. (If you don’t believe me, go read his original coverage. A lot of reporters were in the tank for him.) Bill Clinton was glamourous, at least to Sid Blumenthal, not to mention Monica. And, if you want gush, go read Peggy Noonan on George Bush circa June 2002.

  3. I don’t get this stuff at all. Haven’t since it all started with that speech at the Democratic Convention.

    Episiarch,

    Neither. He’s Sam Neill.

  4. So, judging by the lack of comments on the Raimondo piece, no one, including Postrel, takes him seriously?

  5. Alan, do you really read this as gushing? I read it as “Warning – because Obama is cute, urban and articulate, you may accidentally project qualities upon him that he may not possess, and he may actually be a con man or vampire.”

    And Bill Clinton was charismatic, not glamorous. Corn pone disqualifies you from being glamorous. Obama can be glamorous because of the patina of internationalism he has from his unique childhood and, of course, because he is a city man, not a country boy.

  6. Alan Vanneman,

    Even in 1980, Reagan was old, and not in a glamorous Sean Connery way. Even as an actor, he is not remembered for playing glamorous characters.

    Clinton is closer to the mark that Postrel is talking about. He always had a presence that encourages people to fill in the blanks for themselves, for both good and bad.

    I don’t get where you conclude that she’s gushing over him. She’s basically saying that he’s an empty suit soaked in politician pheromones. Or did you project your own meaning into her article?

  7. Or it could be something much simpler: winning by default.

  8. ‘politician pheromones’

    That just prompted an image of nancy pelosi humping his leg.

  9. Reagan, whatever his faults, was not a blank slate. He was pretty clear about what he believed in. I think this is a pretty brilliant point about Obama. Rimfax makes a great point about Clinton. That would explain why liberals loved a guy who sold them out on NAFTA and welfare reform and conservatives had such a loathing for a Democrat who basically governed from the center right; they both projected their best or worst expectations of him.

  10. Yes, he’s a dedicated follower of fashion….

  11. Interesting thoughts.

    VP writes His glamour makes it easy to imagine that a President Obama would dissolve differences, abolish hard choices, and achieve political consensus–or that he’s a stealth candidate who will translate his vague platform into a mandate for whatever policies you the voter happen to support.

    One could much the same thing about people projecting their views on McCane – for example, his consistently large margin of victory among anti-war (!) Republicans – but I doubt anyone would consider him glamourous.

  12. I don’t get it either, I went to an Obama rally & wasn’t impressed at all. It had nothing to do with the fact that I don’t agree with his politics, he was boring.

  13. I think McCain could be considered a glamrous candidate. Well, at least with the press.

  14. That just prompted an image of nancy pelosi humping his leg.

    Ever see any photos of Clare McCaskill in his presence? That’s not an “I appreciate his stance on transportation earmarks” kind of a look.

    The poor guy. I bet he had a lot of trouble meeting women in college.

  15. Even in 1980, Reagan was old, and not in a glamorous Sean Connery way. Even as an actor, he is not remembered for playing glamorous characters.

    I don’t think that type of glamour is what Ms. Postrel is talking about. “Political glamour” is more about stuff like being able to effortlessly command a room and evoke strongly emotional responses in susceptible listeners. Reagan had that in droves, as did Bill Clinton in his heyday. Obama clearly has it now. Frankly, “magnetism” is probably a better word for it than “glamour.”

    Either way, political glamour has a way of masking a whole lot of nothing.

  16. The posession of glamour can also be used, as Hillary has done, to deny that a candidate has substance. Eg, since he’s such a good orator, that means that’s all he is.

    Empty suits don’t get into Harvard without a legacy admission, and don’t become President of the Harvard Law Review. This isn’t a dummy with a good line of patter.

  17. What, ask his opponents, is Obama hiding?

    He’s hiding, in plain view, that he’s a New Deal far-left liberal with the ability to get (some/many) people to ignore that and project their own political views upon him — people think to themselves “hey, he’s charming and friendly and intelligent, and so am I, so he MUST be just like me.”

    I worked for a politician who mastered the projection thing. Was quite a shock to some supporters when he started voting.

  18. You know. New Dealers. People waaaaaaaaaayyyyyyy out on the far left of American society.

    Fringe types. You know, who support Social Security and the SEC. Real out of the mainstream far-lefties.

  19. Wow, I’m surprised Postrel managed a couple sentences of criticism against her personal savior.

  20. Wasn’t Ms. Postrel the bedgraggled cunt who called covert CIA WMD expert and hottie Valerie Plame “anti-American” for telling the truth?

  21. It is interesting that people consider Clinton such a great speaker. I frankly never saw it. He gave unbearably long and verbose speeches. Maybe he was impressive in person. I have never met him. But as a public speaker he has to be the most overrated President of all time. Anyone with a passing knowledge of politics still remembers or has knowledge of “Day with will live in Infamy” or “Ask not what your country can do for you” or “the boys of Point Du Hoc”. Name me one speech Clinton ever gave that is even in those speeches’ league? I can’t think of one. I can’t remember one speech Clinton ever gave beyond waving his pen around in the 1994 SOU address and speaking after the OKC bombing, neither one of which were particularly remarkable.

  22. John,

    My impression is that Bubba was at his best in interviews, debates, intimiate settings, and press conferences, as opposed to formal oratories.

    Sort of the opposite of Obama.

  23. But even well-informed observers disagree about whether he represents the extreme left wing of the Democratic party or something more market-oriented and centrist.

    Really? Because I think that observers who are actually well-informed are pretty aware that he is from the extreme left wing of his party. They either like that and therefore try to play it down in the interests of electability. Or they don’t support him because they know his background. Or they aren’t as well informed as they think they are.

  24. John,

    I thought he was a fair speaker, though long-winded. Don’t forget the Era of Big Government is Over speech! That was a classic.

  25. For a variation of the drinking game…

    Virgina Postrel’s writing has really gone down the toilet since she left Reason.

  26. Isn’t it amazing how every candidate who gets the Democratic nomination becomes the most far-left liberal ev-ah, as soon as it becomes apparent he’s going to win?

    Let’s see here: Kucinich, Gravel, Clinton, Biden, Dodd, Richardson, Obama, Edwards.

    Barack Obama isn’t even on the left half of the Democratic candidates who ran for the nomination this year, and yet, the moment he became the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination, he leap-frogged the guy who wants to create a Department of Peace; the guy who led the fillibuster that cut off fends for the Vietnam War; and the guy who made poverty eradition the centpiece of his campaign.

    Uh huh.

  27. Joe, he was rated the most liberal Senator by the National Journal. I don’t think that was some kind of conspiracy.

  28. Ever Democratic candidate gets rated “the most liberal” by the National Journal. Haven’t you noticed? It’s an artifact of the votes they choose to count, and the fact that they count them while the officeholder in question is running for the Democratic nomination.

    They guy hasn’t even put forward a universal health care plan, nevermind a single-payer one. Something like 1/3 of the Democratic caucus supports single payer.

    Nor did he join Kucinich and Kennedy in the “Out of Iraq Caucus” until it became the mainstream Democratic position.

  29. I remember being impressed by Clinton’s first inaugural address. “…Nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what’s right with America,” and the Bridge to the 21st Century bit.

    If there are only three memorable quotes in all of Presidential history, your bar may be too high. Life ain’t a Bruckheimer film.

  30. If you don’t immediately realize that Obama is to the right of Kennedy, Feingold, or Boxer, you don’t know very much about politics.

  31. Obama sounds pretty liberal to me, though not necessarily the Greatest Liberal of All Time?. Really, how can anyone tell?

  32. Wasn’t Ms. Postrel the bedgraggled cunt who called covert CIA WMD expert and hottie Valerie Plame “anti-American” for telling the truth?

    I don’t know. I’ve been reading her stuff for years and it doesn’t sound like something VP would say.

    Perhaps it up to the person making that kind of an accusation to see if there’s something to back it up. Especially if that someone is going to use such offensive and inflamatory language to describe the object of his allegations.

    1. I’ve never written anything about Valerie Plame.

  33. John, how did you forget, *banging fist on table* “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!”

  34. “If there are only three memorable quotes in all of Presidential history, your bar may be too high. Life ain’t a Bruckheimer film.”

    There is more than that. Those are the ones that I thought of at the time. It is not that Clinton is a bad speaker. It is that he is not Reagan or Kennedy, which is a pretty high bar granted. I always considered Clinton to be a passable speaker as a President but had the impression that other people thought of him as a Reagan or a Kennedy type speaker. I never saw that.

    I find it amazing that the two greatest speeches ever given by a US President (The Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural) were given by the same guy in the span of 16 months. I don’t think I could ever get tired of reading the Second Inaugural. It reads like something out of Greek Tragedy. Aeschylus couldn’t have written a better speech.

  35. Washington’s Farewell Address is my favorite. As for Lincoln, well, he did borrow quite liberally from Pericles’ Funeral Oration when drafting the Gettysburg Address. Still, most presidents don’t know enough to steal from the greats.

  36. “Still, most presidents don’t know enough to steal from the greats.”

    True. It is especially true now since fewer people read the bible and the classics than used to.

  37. Oddly enough, Lincoln wasn’t considered all that great at public speaking in his day.

    While Daniel Webster’s tedious orations were considered so surpassing that he talked the devil into giving a man back his soul in the famous novel.

  38. I wouldn’t underrate Clinton’s formal speeches. Obama may have gained national prominence by giving the keynote address at the convention 4 years ago, but I thought Bubba gave by far the best speech.

  39. Empty suits don’t get into Harvard without a legacy admission.

    Thanks, joe. I appreciate the backhanded compliment.

    You can take it from me, though – getting into Harvard Law School, and even getting out with good grades, is no guarantee that you’ve got the skillz to do anything other than get really good grades.

  40. joe,

    I recall reading that the excitement prior to the Gettysburg event was over some other speaker who was supposed to be the better orator. It helped Lincoln to have that bully pulpit, of course.

    Every law school–every law school–graduates a significant number of idiots. The percentage goes up if we’re talking MBA programs.

  41. is no guarantee that you’ve got the skillz to do anything other than get really good grades

    So Harvard isn’t any different than Johns Hopkins! I knew it. Why did I ever go there?

  42. If you don’t immediately realize that Obama is to the right of Kennedy, Feingold, or Boxer, you don’t know very much about politics.

    I’ve never thought of his policy positions as being anything but strictly mediocre, plain vanilla, go-along-to-get-along, middle-of-the-road, squishy-left Democrat party line.

  43. Empty suits don’t get into Harvard without a legacy admission, and don’t become President of the Harvard Law Review. This isn’t a dummy with a good line of patter.

    He’s no dummy, but I seem to recall hearing that something called “affirmative action” has been practiced in US universities (and elsewhere) in recent decades. I’m not claiming that’s how he got in, but it’s silly to ignore that factor.

    Actually graduating, of course, is the real achievement. And I’m sure you’ll acknowledge George Bush’s intellect for getting an MBA from Harvard, right…? 😉

    If you don’t immediately realize that Obama is to the right of Kennedy, Feingold, or Boxer

    Maybe on some issues, but are they also in favor of driver’s licenses for illegals? For the Orwellian named Employee Free Choice Act, to get rid of secret ballots for unionization elections? Are they against free trade pacts? Have they said nice things about comparable worth, for heaven’s sake? (Let’s have the government address gender disparities in wages by deciding what all jobs should pay!) Regardless of where he stands in relation to other Democrats, he’s far to the left of the average American on many, many things.

  44. “Still, most presidents don’t know enough to steal from the greats.”

    Maybe John Gillespie Magee, Jr. wasn’t a great, but Reagan’s quote of “High Flight” was as memorable as anything he said except “tear down that wall”. Of course, I’ve been around aviation all my life, so maybe I’m biased.

  45. I don’t know if I’d call him “glamorous,” but Jimmy Carter also had a talent for seeming liberal to liberals and conservative to conservatives.

  46. So Virginia Postrel thinks that Obama’s glamour lets people project their own beliefs onto him? I have been politically active since 1964, and every candidate I have supported and most of the ones I have opposed have gotten support from people who totally misunderstood them.

    Racists voted for Barry Goldwater, who desegrated the Arizona National Guard. Conservatives voted for George W Bush, who expanded medicare, federal control of education, and ran record-breaking deficits.

    And libertarians project onto Postrel the belief that because she was associated with Reason, that she has any intellectual contribution to make to libertarianism.

  47. Every law school–every law school–graduates a significant number of idiots.

    Maybe, but they don’t make president of the law review. Certainly not at Harvard.

    I’ve never thought of his policy positions as being anything but strictly mediocre, plain vanilla, go-along-to-get-along, middle-of-the-road, squishy-left Democrat party line. Value judgments aside, I think that’s about right. Dead center of the Democratic Party is a pretty good characterization of his politics.

    Papaya SF,

    He was President of the Harvard Law Review. Affirmative Action (which jumps immediately to some people’s minds in certain circumstances, I guess) might get you in the door, but it doesn’t get you that.

    And I’m sure you’ll acknowledge George Bush’s intellect for getting an MBA from Harvard, right…? 😉 MBA, right?

    Maybe on some issues, but are they also in favor of driver’s licenses for illegals? For the Orwellian named Employee Free Choice Act, to get rid of secret ballots for unionization elections? Are they against free trade pacts Yes. IIRC, every one of those figures is in favor of every one of those positions. BTW, Bill Richardson, often lauded as the most libertarian Democrat in the race, was the governor who signed the bill providing for driver’s licenses for Paperwork-Deprived America-Joiners in New Mexico.

  48. Hell, I’m starting to doubt he’s to the left of “Commander in chief of the economy” Hillary…

  49. President of law review means jack–it’s generally a politco gig. Being on the law review does show something, on the other hand. I think you have to grade on to Harvard’s–no write-on option, though I’m not sure. Did he publish while he was there? That’s the real measure of success, not sitting around editing other people’s work.

    I was Number 2 on my school’s law review, so I know of what I speak. The best perk was the big scholarship and the infinite free photocopies. Now that, my friends, is power.

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