THE MOST UBIQUITOUS POLITICAL trope of the presidential campaign has been that Barack Obama is not just any old politician; he's a "rock star." (There are 770,000 Google hits of Obama and "rock star" and counting.) He attracts the kind of huge crowds that congregate around rock stars. He elicits the fevered passion from his adherents that a rock star does. He has the loose-limbed bearing, the cool, the charisma of a rock star, and his constituency is disproportionately young, like a rock star's. Obama is the Britney Spears of this political season, as a recent John McCain political ad implies.
Like all cliches, this one has some truth and a lot more gas. The last time the media carted out this theme was 40 years ago, when Robert Kennedy, running for president, attracted the same sort of frenzied adulation and also threatened to upset the political apple cart by assembling a coalition of the young, the disenfranchised and the well-educated. But for Obama and for Bobby, the characterization is insulting and
imprecise. It is insulting because it suggests that their devotees' effusions are just a visceral reaction -- the political equivalent of puppy love. And it is imprecise because Obama is -- and Bobby was -- more movie star than rock star, which is an analogy with a difference. Rock stars, with some glaring exceptions, typically whip up the crowd; the thrill tends to be short-lived. Movie stars, by contrast, tend to create a long-standing emotional identification with their audience. It's a difference that may have a bearing on the outcome of this election as voters weigh the advantages of being a movie star against its disadvantages. Movie stardom can be confused with mere celebrity, which has connotations of insubstantiality.
It was nearly 50 years ago that Norman Mailer, in his essay "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," observed how John Kennedy, the original political movie star, was reinventing U.S. politics. As Mailer saw it, Kennedy was "unlike any politician who had ever run for president in the history of the land." Most candidates were dull, prosaic, cautious; they lived solely within the political arena. Kennedy, with his good looks, his beautiful wife, his ironic wit, his style, was the first candidate who also lived outside it, in what Mailer called the "subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely romantic desires" -- the psychic territory inhabited by our movie stars. Kennedy was the first politician to realize that the best politics wasn't politics at all. It was a form of popular culture -- dream-making. Or, as Mailer put it, Kennedy turned politics into a movie.
All campaigns are movies now, consisting of competing narratives with competing stars. Part of Obama's appeal, as it was for the Kennedys, is that he has what all rising stars have. He has youth. He has good looks. He has charisma. He has an ability to spellbind. He has had a rapid ascent that makes him new and unfamiliar. He has, in this McLuhanesque age, unflappability that plays especially well on television. And as the biracial son of a single mother, he has a great personal story that provides a terrific vehicle for his role.
But, above all, Obama has something else that all great stars have -- he embodies a theme. Every great star is a walking idea. James Cagney demonstrated the power of sheer energy early in his career, and the way that energy could curdle later in his career. Cary Grant demonstrated the force of charm and quick-wittedness. Paul Newman demonstrated the limitations of self-interest and the redemption that comes with engagement outside oneself. Robert Redford demonstrated the deception of appearances. Barbra Streisand, in the immortal words of critic Pauline Kael, demonstrated that talent was beauty. That is what made these individuals stars. They incorporated ideas that mattered to us, that resonated with us.
Obama is a star in this sense too. As he reiterates endlessly, Obama brings idealism at a time when many Americans are despairing of making any headway against the problems the nation faces. Drawing on his own personal story of disadvantage that led to Columbia University, Harvard Law School and now to the Democratic nomination, Obama in his every gesture and utterance suggests that "Yes We Can." This idealism isn't inspiring adulation because Obama is already a star. Obama is a star precisely because he is inspiring. He is the anti-Bush, and what he's selling is hope.
It is axiomatic that the more powerful the theme a star embodies, the more powerful his or her stardom. Obama's theme is a potent one. Whether one buys into it or not, he promises to cross divides -- political, ideological, racial, geographic -- and to transcend the old politics of fear and hate that has commandeered recent elections. He believes that America can -- and should -- be the moral beacon for the world by returning to its core values. In analyzing his own appeal, Obama says he has become a symbol -- which, again, is exactly what all stars are. He is providing a really good, uplifting movie.
Critics, not least of all John McCain, have complained that this is merely windy rhetoric -- high-blown but ultimately empty. Eventually, they say, Obama will come back to Earth the way rock stars do when the concert ends. But this misses the point of what Obama has tapped into, as well as the point of movie stardom itself. Yes, politicians can declaim themes, and Obama is doing that. Yet Obama is not just declaiming his theme the way most politicians have. He has lived it, which is why it has been so effective.
Of course McCain is a hero in his own right, but his narrative is familiar -- it's a war movie after all -- and his feat is that of having survived, which in a Hollywood film is not the same thing as having led the rescue. He hardly embodies the new-style heroism that Mailer saw in John Kennedy, which allowed the late president to extend the bounds of politics not only into stardom but into imagination as stars do. With Kennedy, anything seemed possible.
Obama is attempting the same feat. But as Mailer, a Kennedy admirer, also observed in 1960, this goes against the traditional American political grain. There were many voters, he realized then, who would opt for the "psychic security of [Richard] Nixon," the staid, reliable politics of trepidation rather than "be brave enough to enlist the romantic dream" of America that Kennedy promised. You never quite know where a movie star might take you.
Obama faces that obstacle too. It is the downside of being a star. What this election may finally come down to is a choice between politics and movie stardom, between the safety of what we think we know and the expansiveness of what we dream, or, in more prosaic terms, between good old John Wayne and the less predictable but more exciting Will Smith. In any case, rock stars need not apply.
Neal Gabler is the author of many books, including "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" and "Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times