Entry from November 17, 2008

Who, do you suppose, is being described in the following passage?

You recognize it as soon as she walks into the room: a woman, late 40s, thin, stylish, her un-plasticized face aglow. Having long since passed proving herself, she radiates a secret kind of joy, propelled by a benevolent second wind. This is what a woman looks like when she’s comfortable in her own skin, at once in charge and in bloom.

Michelle Obama? No, but it’s a good guess. Instead, it is the lead paragraph of Ann Hornaday’s interview with Kristin Scott Thomas in today’s Washington Post and just what you would expect from a celebrity profile: that is, fawning to the point of what, in any other context, would be embarrassment.

“I love where I am right now,” she said in Toronto, settling into a restaurant banquette, the sun at her back. Dressed in a sheer blouse and skinny jeans, with coral-colored toenails peeking out from rope-soled wedge sandals, she was the picture of effortless chic. Her smile came easily and often, her mouth and eyes crinkling into what on other women would be wrinkles but on her are just the facial equivalent of a few grace notes.

Now, cast your own wrinkly eyes upwards and slightly to the left on the same page of today’s paper and read Howard Kurtz’s “Media Notes” headed “A Giddy Sense of Boosterism.” Turns out he is talking about Obamania:

Perhaps it was the announcement that NBC News is coming out with a DVD titled “Yes We Can: The Barack Obama Story.” Or that ABC and USA Today are rushing out a book on the election. Or that HBO has snapped up a documentary on Obama”s campaign. Perhaps it was the Newsweek commemorative issue — “Obama’s American Dream” — filled with so many iconic images and such stirring prose that it could have been campaign literature. Or the Time cover depicting Obama as FDR, complete with jaunty cigarette holder. . . Whew! Are journalists fostering the notion that Obama is invincible, the leader of what the New York Times dubbed “Generation O”?

And, more important, does it matter? That they are doing it would seem to be pretty hard to deny. But then, that the President-elect is also a celebrity has been clear since long before he was the President-elect. John McCain thought to make a liability of his celebrity last summer by comparing him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. It didn’t take, somehow. Turns out that people didn’t mind voting for a celebrity any more than the media did. Or at least than you’d think the media did. “But aren’t media people supposed to resist this kind of hyperventilating?” adds Mr Kurtz quite unselfconsciously. Ya think? Oh, well, maybe not. If Kristin Scott Thomas, then why not Barack Obama?

Anyway, it seems there’s nothing to worry about after all. “‘Obama is a figure, especially in pop culture, in a way that most new presidents are not,’ historian Michael Beschloss says. ‘Young people who may not be interested in the details of NAFTA or foreign policy just think Obama is cool, and they’re interested in him. Being cool can really help a new president.’” Oh well, if historian Michael Beschloss says so. . . So, by the way, does Mr Kurtz’s Washington Post Corporation stablemate, Jon Meacham of Newsweek: “We’re celebrating a moment as much as a man, I think,” Mr Meacham told him, implying that this was the import of his magazine’s comparison of the now former senator from Illinois to Abraham Lincoln. “Given our racial history, an hour or two of commemoration seems appropriate. But there is no doubt that the glow of the moment will fade, and I am sure the coverage will reflect that in due course.”

So that’s all right then! Mr Kurtz himself seems to agree, concluding his piece by noting that “Obama’s days of walking on water won’t last indefinitely. His chroniclers will need a new story line. And sometime after Jan. 20, they will wade back into reality.” You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But then we have no precedent for such a president — a president who, that is, is a celebrity on his election. President Kennedy was retrospectively, but the effusiveness about him on taking office alluded to by Mr Kurtz was by no means so universal as today’s Obamania, nor were what were considered the “serious” media outlets of 1961 anywhere near as dominated by celebrity puffery as their equivalents today. It may, of course, be true that, sooner or later, when the fresh young Prince of Hyde Park commits his first royal screw-up, that the media will snap back into the adversarial mode. But it’s not as if, today, they don’t have another mode of operation — one designed to treat ordinary human and therefore political failings as the “grace notes” of celebrity.

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