Aug 10, 2008

Before celebrity became a bad word

In a week in which McCain attempts to confound Obama with accusations of his own celebrity, a look at how it used to be done: a fascinating set of documentary clips showing the Kennedies in all their glory. We see JFK arriving at a political rally, then signing autographs; Jackie fiddling with her gloves while talking to an audience of Polish Americans; an intimate view of the two brothers holding a crisis meeting inside the white house to deal with George Wallace; finally, and most charmingly, we see Bobby, speaking on the phone to Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, when his 3-year-old daughter, Kerry, interrupts. Instead of shooing her away, Kennedy puts her on the line. The footage was shot by journalist Robert Drew, whose two films about the Kennedies, Primary and Crisis, have just been reissued in a newly released box set.
It was nearly 50 years ago that Norman Mailer, in his essay "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," observed how John Kennedy, the original political movie star, was reinventing U.S. politics. As Mailer saw it, Kennedy was "unlike any politician who had ever run for president in the history of the land." Most candidates were dull, prosaic, cautious; they lived solely within the political arena. Kennedy, with his good looks, his beautiful wife, his ironic wit, his style, was the first candidate who also lived outside it, in what Mailer called the "subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely romantic desires" -- the psychic territory inhabited by our movie stars. Kennedy was the first politician to realize that the best politics wasn't politics at all. It was a form of popular culture -- dream-making. Or, as Mailer put it, Kennedy turned politics into a movie.... Obama brings idealism at a time when many Americans are despairing of making any headway against the problems the nation faces. Drawing on his own personal story of disadvantage that led to Columbia University, Harvard Law School and now to the Democratic nomination, Obama in his every gesture and utterance suggests that "Yes We Can." This idealism isn't inspiring adulation because Obama is already a star. Obama is a star precisely because he is inspiring." — Neal Gabler, Los Angeles Times
This is dead on. Does anyone think that the kind of world-wide renown that Obama has achieved is easy to come by? That charisma is one of those things you rustle up before lunch? That inspiring millions is something we could all do, if only we put aside our more onerous chores and really concentrated on it? In belittling Obama's "celebrity" McCain's campaign is dangerously close not just to being negative, but to the political equivalent of a double negative: being against hope because Obama says he is for it, looking down on popularity because Obama happens to have it, ridiculing aspiration because Obama's life embodies it.

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