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Obama’s Story « The Washington Independent

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/comic-obama.jpgSen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) (Original Photo: WDCpix)

It was a comic book moment. Any fan of the genre could recognize it, when the McCain campaign launched a much-discussed television ad that tagged Sen. Barack Obama as “the biggest celebrity in the world.” It seamlessly flashed to shots of Us Weekly cover-girls Britney Spears and Paris Hilton before asking, “But, is he ready to lead?”

That’s because, over the years, characters like Superman and Batman and Captain America, whose histories go back to before America officially entered World War II, have been in a constant state of reinvention. Their origins, their motivations are constantly being rewritten or reinterpreted by each writer and artist who takes them on. And so it is with Obama.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The Obama story, in the hands of its creators, is simple and definite in its trajectory. It’s the story of a boy who never knew his father, was raised by a mother and grand-parents, had high aspirations for himself and met them. It is, at its core, a distillation of our collective story as Americans.

But in the hands of someone with less reverence for the character, Obama’s origin story becomes something else however. He becomes a man able to bring together millions, yes, but whose words are on the same intellectual level as two publicly troubled young women, best known for drunken misdeeds. He becomes a man with a shared failure to understand, as Peter Parker did, that with great power comes great responsibility.

“This is something that I’ve been struggling with since the campaign began,” Obama told reporters aboard his campaign plane the evening of his birthday, Aug. 5. “There’s a tendency I think when we, because we talk hopefully about common grounds and sort of a bigger vision that we get tagged as, ‘Oh, he’s all about words’ or he’s, ‘it’s all hope’ or ‘it’s all flash or sizzle.’ And, you know, the truth is that, throughout our campaign, I think we’ve been offering a lot of very specific proposals.”

It would seem that, at least for the moment, Sen. John McCain’s attempts to redefine Obama worked. Tracking polls produced by Gallup showed the race tightening last week, at one point to a statistical dead heat. Now, Obama leads by a mere 3 percent — 46 to 43 percent — over his Republican rival.

Whatever one might think of the ad’ s execution, as far as the McCain campaign was concerned, it at exactly the right time for exactly the the right purpose: To plant seeds of doubt in the summer that will grow into a full-scale assault — turning a candidate’s greatest strength into his weakness — by the first leaves of fall. If the ad could effectively ridicule 200,000 people showing up to hear Obama in Berlin, one can only imagine what they could do with his coming Democratic National convention acceptance speech, surrounded by 70,000 people in Invesco Field in Denver.

“Here is a man who grew up in a broken home whose father left at a young age and who was raised by a single mother,” said David R. Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who has previously served as a White House adviser to Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. “It’s an admirable story of rising from rags to riches, one that resonates. In many ways he’s a modern Horatio Alger.

“Now the McCain campaign wants to create a dramatically different narrative,” Gergen continued. “They want you to see him as a man who went to fancy schools; who has had the beneficiary of an elite life, and is increasingly removed from the mainstream of normal American life. They want to create someone who is ‘The Other.’ That’s what they did for John Kerry. They succeeded in turning his medals of honor in Vietnam into a liability.

“And now the McCain campaign wants to turn Obama’s strength into a weakness and make him seem like a celebrity who has nothing to offer but high-blown words.,” Gergen continued. “He’s obviously not in the same league as Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. They’ve gone way too far with that. But we’ve seen where strategies that have been derided by commentators have been effective with voters.

“We’ve learned from previous campaigns that the effective way to create an alternative story for your rival is the summer before the fall campaign,” Gergen noted. “You can but a ball and chain on an opponent and he’s going to have a hard time running a race in the fall.”

Indeed the Obama-as-celebrity ad seemed to come straight from the playbook of previous Republican campaigns. In 1988, Michael S. Dukakis, who represented another version of the American dream, trumpeted his governorship of Massachusetts as a true model of what he would do in the White House. By the time of his crushing defeat to George H.W. Bush, Massachusetts was viewed as a state besieged by pollution, where murderers like Willie Horton ran rampant, terrorizing the commonwealth’s overly-taxed citizens while on weekend passes. When people gathered to watch the fall debates in 2004, Kerry was a false hero, undeserving of his military honors.

Gergen is quick to point out that it’s a tactic shared by the lone Democrat to serve two full terms in the highest office since Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1996 before Sen. Bob Dole arrived at the Republican National Convention, President Bill Clinton had remade him into a cranky old man unwilling to look forward and lead the American people into the next century.

Dole. Dukakis. Kerry. All these men, in running for public office seemed to follow the foreshadow cast by the character Harvey Dent, who would later become the ruthless Two-Face in “The Dark Knight,” when he said, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

But each of these men were not taken down by a single stroke as President Lyndon B. Johnson did to Sen. Barry M .Goldwater with his “Daisy” ad. Instead their stories were recast through a method that former House Majority whip Tony Coelho, the ex-California congressman who served as chairman of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential run, calls “drip, drip, drip.”

“You start to lay the message and it just builds,” Coelho said of the drip. “You do it by attacking someone’s strongest suit. Obama’s celebrity, his popularity with young people and a lot of independents is something they want to turn into a negative. From their point of view, they were doing the drip. But when they brought the women into it, they crossed the line. It was too cute by a half — and ended up being mocked everywhere. So, while it could have been effective, it got national attention from the negative point of view with a lot of people saying ‘Here we go again.’”

But the attention is what matters here. Even as I and many other reporters and commentators wrote and went to the air to denounce the whole concept, we did write and go to the air to denounce it. Network newscasts showed the ad in its entirety, and it seemed on a perpetual loop on the 24-hour cable news networks.

Like Gergen and Coelho, the pugilist and Republican campaign consultant Ed Rollins, who served as national campaign director for Ronald Reagan’s 1984 victory, and more recently the national campaign chairman for Mike Huckabee’s Republican primary run, sees no lasting power in the ad.

“It’s a nice try,” Rollins said, “but he’s not an elitist. That’s not a sustained campaign tactic. Here was someone who grew up with nothing verses the son of four-star admirals. It’s a nice try and a good diversion in the first part of August, but painting him as an elitist is not a winning strategy going into the fall.”

But Rollins did give a nod to its short-term effectiveness by which the McCain campaign spent very little to get national attention. “It was a fine buy,” Rollins said, “because free media saw and heard about it. It usually takes a multimillion-dollar campaign to get onto national airwaves. Here you had an ad dissected and discussed because the mainstream media is willing to jump on any story because nothing’s going on at this point in the campaign. In the course of the campaign, normally you’d see it on page A16. Instead it was everywhere.”

Moreover, as Gerald Rafshoon, who left his post as an advertising executive to serve as Jimmy Carter’s White House communications director, pointed out, “It’s not such a negative thing to be a celebrity.”

Yet the attacks and the reshaping of Obama’s story as a man and political figure are certain to continue. After all, Superman’s whole 50-year history was wiped away in a single-mini series when a writer and artist named John Byrne decided the first Super Hero had to be simplified, with many of his powers stripped and whole sections of his life cutoff as if everything we had ever read and re-read had never happened.

So despite the Obama’s campaign’s uncanny ability to wave off attacks, the deflector shields could be strengthened.

One way is creating a biographical film of previously-unseen caliber, shown before Obama’s speech in Denver, that will truly drill home the true rise of the man and his vision for the country going forward. While McCain’s film will most undoubtedly emphasize his life as a man of valor, who found ways to serve both in war and peace, Obama’s must show the upward climb of a man and his family in a spirit that best represents the American dream.

The second way, according to Gergen, is expanding the use of surrogates. These are the talk show and news segment guests, people who know Obama’s history and character who can help Obama maintain control over his own narrative.

“He’s trying to carry to much of the weight himself,” said Gergen, who also believes Obama would be best served by picking his one-time rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, as his running-mate. “If he doesn’t pick Hillary, he needs national surrogates of that nature, who will be listened to by the national press.

“It’s the idea that you have a stable of people,” Gergen continued. “You have one or two who’ll talk on national security; another one or two who will take care of domestic issues, and a couple of political insiders who’re able to deal with situations when issues of race and ethnicity and class come up. These are people who can stand before a group in Southern Ohio and they’ll listen to him or her.”

Ultimately, though, it will be Obama’s task to remain above the fray, even as he maintains the brand that will undoubtedly be chipped away at in the coming months. Over the course of the next 90 days, Obama’s great strength as a figure comfortable on the grand stage, as a man who can inspire masses will be tested. He cannot be, like Batman at the end of “The Dark Knight,” a lone, silent guardian. Obama will have to step into the light as a symbol — as did Batman in “Batman Begins,” where the origin myth and story emerges as incorruptible and everlasting.

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