Saturday, February 23, 2008

'Inspiration', 'Cult of Personality' A Crock? Tell It To St. Ronnie!

(cross-posted at the Smirking Chimp)

It seems that Barack Obama is drawing heat from the right and the left because he's 'inspirational'. John McCain says about Obama's message, "It's no more than an eloquent, but empty call for change." Hillary Clinton touts her own experience and toughness as superior to Barack Obama's call for unity and optimism.

The point seems to be that Obama's message of hope and inspiration that has galvanized so many Americans (even a few Republicans, or 'Obamicans' as they're now known) is a bunch of hogwash, and that Obama's appeal is superficial and insubstantive. 'Hope'? That's nothing to base a presidential campaign on!

While the Republicans are busy vilifying Obama for his inspirational speeches and call him an 'empty suit' and a perpetrator of the 'Cult of Personality', they seem to have forgotten about the Ultimate Republican Hero, whom the Repub candidates have practically come to blows over as they each claim to be the 'absolutely most Reagan-y'. John McCain called himself a 'Foot-soldier in the Reagan Revolution'. The basis of Ronald Reagan's appeal (to both Republicans and the 'Reagan Democrats') was that, instead of endlessly droning on about the problems we faced as a nation and the unpleasant medicine we'd have to swallow if we wanted things to get better like that grumpy old Jimmy Carter did (gosh, who wants to vote for someone who tells you things you don't want to hear? Conserving energy? Turning down our thermostats? Yuck!), Reagan burst forth like sunshine from behind a cloud and pooh-poohed away all those worries with a dismissive wave of his hand as he told Americans not to believe their lying eyes or their dwindling bankbooks, but to cheer up; because we were the Best Nation Ever™, and to say otherwise was tantamount to treason.

And who didn't want to believe him? Americans were tired of sacrifice and penny-pinching, inflation and gas lines, hostages and humiliation. So when Reagan promised that he was going to wipe the slate clean and make Americans proud once more, he held out something that could not be quantified or qualified - he held out hope. He told Americans what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear, and his 'feel-good' rhetoric catapulted him into the White House. His emphasis on supply-side economics (or 'voodoo economics' as his future VP Bush Senior called it during the race for the nomination), the idea that 'deficits don't matter' and complete rollback of the New Deal went unchallenged in the desire to put the 'bad stuff' behind us.

Reagan, however, really was a 'tabula rasa' - an actor who could be counted on to do his corporate masters' bidding with zeal and true belief, which was how he got Americans to trust him. The public can sniff out inauthenticity, and, as an actor, he immersed himself in the biggest role of his career until he really did believe. A former Democrat, former New Deal supporter, former labor union president (Screen Actors Guild), Reagan’s years with GE as not only a television host but a traveling ‘good-will ambassador’ for GE, changed his viewpoint as he spent the bulk of his time with corporate and defense contractor honchos and became convinced that government regulation was interfering with the free market. He was passionate, as are most born-agains, and the sincerity of his convictions resonated with the electorate, winning him a whole new constituency of ‘Reagan Democrats’. Believing as he did that government was the problem, not the solution, he cut off funding for arts and education, busted unions (beginning with the air traffic controllers strike, which caused a sharp upturn in airplane accidents), and slashed programs to assist mothers, children, and minorities, while pouring money into defense and running up huge deficits.

Yes, old Saint Ronnie was quite the salesman, and his customers just couldn't get enough of the snake-oil. Reagan was groomed and prepped by the political star-makers of the right to be the popular face of their movement, and in that sense he was a brilliant success. He got a laugh when he said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'” Actually, to me the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “An actor with Alzheimer’s was once our Nation’s President”. But I digress. His witty little quips and avuncular folksiness obscured the fact that he was launching a war against the middle class and the poor, and putting forth the incredible idea that 'Government is the enemy and Big Business is your friend."

Reagan was, indeed, the triumph of 'style over substance', and it was the force of his personality that earned him the label "The Great Communicator". But he has been ensconced in conseravtive minds as the greatest president ever, while ostensibly 'running the country' in the throes of Alzheimer's.

Barack Obama is far more qualified to be President than Reagan ever was. Like Schwarzenegger after him, Reagan was an actor who had been recruited by big money interests to lend their on-screen persona to the agenda of the big businesses who, for obvious reasons, could not be elected on their own recognizance. Obama has the drive and the charisma, but he also has the goods. He's his own man, for whatever that's worth.

This may be what drives the Repubs crazy. The purpose of an empty suit is for it to be worn by someone else. They have deified Reagan for the same thing that they are crucifying Obama for - for inspiring, uplifting, instilling hope in the hopeless. But when you compare the two, there's a difference. Reagan's feel-good, yay-America, look-at-the-pretty-birdie-over-there rhetorical sleight-of-hand was meant to distract Americans from reality while the real operatives did their work behind the scenes. Obama is a gifted, passionate and persuasive speaker who has touched a nerve in America. But he has also spent his lifetime involved in public service. He is highly educated and skilled. Whatever else he may be, he is not a mouthpiece for those who would rather stay in the shadows and pull strings from behind the curtains.

I am not saying this, by the way, as someone who is particularly under the sway of Obama's charisma. He was not my first choice Democrat, or my second. I think he is a good, qualified candidate whom I will support if he becomes the Democratic nominee. But I do not discount the power of the Obama phenomenon, and anything that motivates young people to get excited about a candidate and get involved in the electoral process is something worth paying attention to. The biggest problem I think we face as progressives is apathy, and Obama is shaking people up in a way that hasn't been seen in a generation. Hopelessness breeds apathy and disengagement, and to inspire hope and energy and involvement in people who have been on the sidelines politically is a gift, not just to Obama's campaign, but to the whole (small 'd') democratic process. We all owe Obama a 'thank you' for that.

Republicans like McCain who worship Reagan for his 'hopeful, uplifting' optimism are the same ones who sneer at Obama's message. The self-described 'foot-soldier of the Reagan Revolution' now says, “to encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude.”

Yeah - a platitude like "Morning in America".

I guess that 'inspiration' is only useful to Republicans when it is a smokescreen instead of a searchlight.


Distributorcap said...


that was terrific and right on --- i always wondered about the "cult of reagan" and never quite got it, despite the fact i actually voted for him the first time(i was young and impressionable and really thought Carter was bad - i have total buyers remorse).

as we all know the right wing and conservatives HATE competition and hate to lose -- therefore dirty tricks, lies, and innuendo flooding the media all become part of the plan - George Bush's people have spent their lives mastering that --- and it worked twice.

but every once in awhile an Obama comes along (like a John Kennedy and even to an extent Bill Clinton) and it scares the bejesus out of them == they cant stop it. and they get flustered. and they revert to the same tired game plan. where the right fails this time is that everyone knows the "cult" game is exactly what they do with Reagan (as you said) and they havent mastered the internet as a means of getting their lies out.

republicans are snake oil salesman period --- you said it better than i could. john mccain, for all his faults (and their are tons) is a poor snake oil salesman and they know it.

remember you cannot be a republican unless you are a hypocrite -- it is a requirement for being in the club

KELSO'S NUTS said...


Thanks for adding me to your honor roll.

I like your analysis. I think the Republicans do take for granted their right to run the "empty suit" and market him well. I think in some ways they are dismayed by Obama but in others they have to like him. I surely disagree with physioprof that Obama "kicks ass." He does seem rather adept at kissing it, though, when he's not fussing ans whining. Given that Pat Robertson, Joe Lieberman, and Rick Warren's asses are three he paricularly enjoys kissing, I really don't think the Republicans are too worried about Obama upsetting the apple-cart.

While neither Obama, nor McCain, are particularly "nice guys," I do believe that Obama is a lot smarter and a lot saner than McCain is.

Funny that D-CAPny brings up Jimmy Carter, because to me that's the politician Obama most reminds me of. If Obama were a pleasant person, of course. Both were relative newcomers without much experience who caught the press's fancy and peaked at the right time. Both are religious and centrist by ideology. Obama, like Carter, will probably be overwhelmed by Washington and like Carter will face terrible, terrible economic conditions that have only one "easy" answer. And it's the one "answer" Obama CANNOT give. Peace, of course, is the answer. Reducing the size of the military and national security state. Otherwise, the 70s are coming back as fiscal and monetary policy grind his presidency to dust and without any institutional clout or personal strength, he's going to have to keep all the wars going at these levels and probably initiate one or two new ones: Iran and Venezuela are the likely spots.

One part of me thinks that Obama doesn't mind this because he is sort of a rapturist but the other part of me thinks that Obama the rational person won't want that. He'll just be forced into it by political reality. I would not be surprised to see Obama face a primary challenge in 2012 from someone like Feingold.

McCain portends constant disasters and Obama portends the slow drip of stagflation and continued involvement in Iraq and Afghansitan. And so long as there's war in the Middle-East, the US economy's going to get worse and worse. The press is starting to get a bit fed up with Obama's shtick. I don't see Clinton being the beneficiary of that. Perhaps, McCain will get the benefit of the doubt during the general election but he probably won't be able to beat Obama. Expect, though, a very short honeymoon for Obama and a very rough economic ride. None of this, of course, is Obama's fault. It's Bush's fault.

I would expect Obama to govern slightly to Reagan's right and McCain slightly to Hitler's left.

Hillary Clinton would be quite a bit like her husband -- kind of center-right, although she too would inherit a fiscal and monetary mess and the best thing she could do for her country and herself would be to live up to that 60-day Iraq reduction plan.

KELSO'S NUTS said...

Comrade Kevin:

As I think I am the ONLY leftist male Clinton supporter on the telegraph wire, I assume your remark is directed at me.

I don't think those Whites who support Obama are either sexists or guilt-ridden liberals. I don't think those support Clinton are racists. I am POSITIVE I have never written anything of the kind. I don't care for Obama at all but my beef with him has to do with his (lack of) political views and his annoying assumption that he's above all criticism.

This is a campaign, Kevin. They are both trying to WIN. Both of these campaigns are spending enormous amounts of money studying everything and trying to get an edge on the other. Welcome to the NFL. You could have said "try again" to Obama when his schtick was to play on the amorophous dislike of Clinton in the electorate ("oh,she's likable ENOUGH..."). What's the big deal here? Clinton's pollsters probably found some weakening in her female support and she's trying to recapture those voters. Pretty standard stuff in a campaign.

He knows he's got a problem with the Democratic base so he's overemphasizing NAFTA when he doesn't even bother to think about international macroeconomics, only about whether his makeup is right and his profile or whatever. I'm not crying about that. It's fair game. So are her two terrible foreign policy votes. No argument.

If he wants the campaign to be about something other than the issues, then his supporters should man-up a little and deal with it when she responds in kind. If it's "historical" for him, it's "historical" for her. Personally, I don't think it's "historical" for either one. Both are U.S. Senators from big statres. Both are Centrist Democrats. Both are wealthy. What's historical? These are RULING CLASS people with AT LEAST a RULING CLASS agenda. Each of them.

The Republicans are way past all that and have moved into a very heavy sadism jones.

Mauigirl said...

I agree completely - the Reagan comparison (minus the conservative politics) is totally apt. Reagan won with his upbeat optimism. Clinton can't win by running against Hope!