Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Obamamania: Virtue or Vice?

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The crowd engulfs Barack Obama on Feb. 11 at Comcast Center on the campus of the University of Maryland. (Photo by Tyrone Turner)

February 11, 2008

c.2008 Newhouse News Service

WASHINGTON — Day after day, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama attracts huge crowds of adoring supporters who cheer his message of hope, chanting “Yes We Can.”

But amid a run of primary and caucus victories over Hillary Clinton, a new storyline has emerged in the reporting and discussion of Obama, portraying his campaign as a kind of unsettling craze or messianic cult.

“I’m not the first to point out that the  Obama campaign seems dangerously close to a cult of personality,” The New York Times’ Paul Krugman, who prefers Hillary Clinton, wrote in his Monday column, headlined “Hate Springs Eternal.”

Krugman wasn’t the first. On Friday, Media Matters for America — which describes itself as a progressive media watchdog organization — posted a rundown of the recent flurry of “cult” references. The headline: “Media figures call Obama supporters’ behavior ‘creepy,’ compare them to Hare Krishna and Manson followers.”

To Obama’s supporters, this is a naked attempt to turn the virtue of his campaign — its capacity to excite and inspire — into a vice. They regard it as a cynical misreading of a campaign with the makings of a social movement they believe could transform American politics for the better.

Marshall Ganz, an organizing guru at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said the Democratic Party has grown accustomed to nominating “stiffs” — good guys, he said, like John Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis — who haven’t known how to reach people at the level Obama has tapped.

“There is a kind of suspicion of emotion that goes pretty deep — the idea that emotion is dangerous and uncontrollable,” said Ganz, who last year helped train Obama organizers and volunteers at “Camp Obama” gatherings in several cities.

But, he said, “what moves us to action is not neck up; it’s the heart. That’s sort of where we can get the courage to take risks.” Hope, he said, is not empty optimism, but the prerequisite for creative social action.

This argument matters a lot.

Clinton leads with voters who value experience, Obama among those who yearn for change.

In the modern age, campaigns are a battle of “memes” — messages or themes that make their way into the public mind in a way that becomes the frame for how a candidate is perceived. Democrats in past presidential campaigns have had to contend with the memes that John Kerry was a flip-flopper and Al Gore an exaggerator.

It has been said that Hillary Clinton has the unenviable task of running against “a movement.” But if that movement is seen as a cult or craze, every image of a crowd chanting for Obama takes on a different aspect.

Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson denied Monday that the Clinton campaign was doing anything to push the cult-of-Obama meme.

But Sidney Blumenthal, a senior Clinton adviser, did e-mail the Media Matters posting to a list of influential persons, including reporters.

Asked about that, Blumenthal replied by e-mail that the e-mail in question was “off the record. I send some published articles to close friends. However you received one, it was not intended for you, or any other reporter, and you should tell me how my personal confidence was broken and you happened to receive it.”

Friends perhaps, but the list of those receiving Blumenthal’s e-mail included reporters John B. Judis, a senior editor at The New Republic; Joe Conason, national correspondent for The New York Observer and columnist for; and Gene Lyons, columnist with the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and author of “The Hunting of the President: The Ten Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton.”

Among the references cited in the Media Matters posting was a Thursday Time column by Joe Klein, in which he wrote, “There was something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism — ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for’ — of the Super Tuesday speech and the recent turn of the Obama campaign.”

The same day, on’s blog, Political Punch, senior national correspondent Jake Tapper posted “And Obama Wept.”

“The Holy Season of Lent is upon us,” Tapper wrote. “Can Obama worshippers try to give up their Helter-Skelter cultish qualities for a few weeks?”

“Obamaphilia has gotten creepy,” Joel Stein wrote in Friday’s Los Angeles Times. “What the Cult of Obama doesn’t realize is that he is a politician.”

On Sunday, waiting in a long line to see Obama at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., Kofi Owusu-Boakye, 26, said he knew what was going on.

He has seen how the opposition’s depiction of the Obama campaign as a “fairy tale” that is “raising false hopes” was picked up by bloggers and the “trolls” who roam the comment section of blogs. Now come “creepy” and “cultish.”

“These are key words,” said Owusu-Boakye, who works for the United States Agency for International Development overseeing a portfolio of loans to sub-Saharan Africa.

“We are the most cynical generation in history, a lot of us pride ourselves in our independence. To insinuate that we would sheepishly walk into something, as opposed to demanding change, is meant to undermine what we are trying to do.”

Owusu-Boakye said he had given $100 to the Obama campaign “in small increments. That says something.”

“It’s a movement of we,” he said. “That’s what I love.”

Obama struck the same theme in his Alexandria remarks.

“Change doesn’t happen from the top down, it happens from the bottom up,” he declared.

Noting that he has been belittled as a “hope-monger,” Obama said, “Hope is not blind optimism. Hope is the opposite, it is imagining and then fighting and struggling for something that did not seem possible before.”

“This is transformational,” Bilaal Ahmed, 28, who works for a Web publication, said after the speech.

While Ahmed was already sold on Obama, his companion at the rally, Lubna Alam, a 26-year-old attorney, had supported John Edwards for president and had been annoyed by the zealousness of Obama supporters she knew.

“What is the deal with you people?” she’d ask them. But after hearing Obama Sunday, she said, “I know what people are talking about. He’s so inspirational.”

“The line between crowd behavior, a cult, and a genuine social movement is sometimes hard to draw,” said Frederick Lynch, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “The crying, cooing and emotionalism surrounding the Obama campaign certainly suggest a craze or cult. It’s well known that the problem for people within a craze — such as a stock market or real estate boom — is that you don’t know you’re in it until it bursts.”

The peril for Democrats, Lynch said, is if the Obama bubble bursts after he is nominated but before he is elected.

But Ganz does not believe the Obama campaign is simply a craze, and said it’s certainly not a cult. “Cults shut people off from the world. This is exactly the opposite,” Ganz said.

Lance Hill is a historian and activist in New Orleans, where he is executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research. He finds it “sad commentary on American politics when an idealistic and morally driven political campaign is regarded as some kind of dangerous cult.”

At the Obama rally Wednesday at Tulane University, what struck him more than anything about the candidate “was the audience, which had come willing and eager to be called to a higher moral purpose.

“As I walked past the thousands of mostly young people waiting to hear Obama, I noticed one ornament of their generation missing: No one had their earphones on. They were talking to each other.”


Written by jonathantilove

October 22, 2008 at 2:57 am

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