Barack Obama Has a Cold
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico–Sitting in a downtown public library here I began to blog about how the presumed Democratic nominee for president, Barack Obama, seemed somehow more subdued. In truth, over the months I’ve traveled with him, listening to him speak before 20,000 people one night and 1,500 the following day, I had never heard his voice behave this way. It was lower in pitch, more somber–something I began to attribute to the time off he’d taken last week or even to the smallness of the group of 43 women that had assembled to hear him talk about equal pay and fairness in the workplace. And then, as one woman asked a question and was asked to do it again, Obama said he needed to blow his nose. Yes, the great orator and junior senator from Illinois had a cold.
You can say what you want about the "Obama as Celebrity" focus the McCain campaign has taken. However, it’s true Obama is a man who has been able to move thousands of people through his voice, which he deftly uses to take digs at his opponent while offering America an entirely new vision, formed out of the principles of a better America laid out by those who sacrificed their lives for the New Frontier. As much as he relies on the strength of his policies, he finds a great deal of power through, by what even his opponents will say, is his supreme command of language and the eloquent delivery he’s able to summon.
Upon hearing his admission and the cause–his two young daughters–I was instantly reminded of the words Gay Talese wrote in Esquire in his famous, epic profile of Frank Sinatra from 1966, in a piece, not coincidentally titled "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." It is a story that many attribute to the canon of "new journalism" formed by such writers as Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, and carried forth by modern-day writers like my one-time teacher Tracy Kidder and Mark Singer.
"Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint," Talese wrote all those years ago. "Ferrari without fuel — only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy."
The same would seem true with Obama. The cold robs Obama of his pinpoint control, his ability to move from a zinger about George Bush and John McCain to larger ideas of change and hope which have remained central to his campaign since he began running a year-and-a-half ago. More importantly, it’s his voice that’s able to transform a political event into a spirited rally around the man and the movement he represents. But like Sinatra in that piece, a Democratic supporter would assume Obama can overcome this physical setback–to rise above his physical situation and stand before the 70,000 people in Denver upon his acceptance of his party nomination, a man who needs all his strength for perhaps the great political race of our time.