Every organ of cultural influence–the media, Hollywood, the music industry, churches, academia–is giddy over Barack Obama, whom they have made into a combination of Abraham Lincoln, Princess Diana, Elvis, and even a touch of Jesus Christ. Mr. Obama is the nation’s first super-star president, and his ascendancy has all the hallmarks of celebrity: cult-like followers, fawning media, and expert “brand management.” The adulation was bad enough when Mr. Obama won the election; it reached a climax on Inauguration Day.
The entertainment industry flocked to Washington for the swearing-in. Musicians who would never let a Republican even play their music, much less perform for one, fought over slots in a free concert on the National Mall on Sunday, two days before the great event. Among the performers were Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, U2, Beyonce, Bon Jovi and Garth Brooks. Between sets, the audience heard “inspirational” readings by celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jack Black, and Tiger Woods.
Yet more celebrities had front row seats at the inauguration and gushed about the experience. Actress Susan Sarandon on Mr. Obama: “He is a community organizer like Jesus was. And now, we’re a community and he can organize us.” Actor Alan Cumming: “He’s like Gandhi or something. He’s got that powerful, soulful thing in him.” Actress Anne Hathaway: “I was there at the Mall. [It was] the feeling of millions of people all there sending positive energy and having hope together.” Actress Ellen Burstyn: “It’s the end of a shameful history of our relationship to African-Americans.” Black actress Alfre Woo-dard: “I think we might finally grow up as a nation.” Black PBS commentator John Ridley: “Obama is the more perfect union. He is a house united. . . . [J]ust by virtue of his being, Obama is America, and the first true American to lead our nation.” Black poet Maya Angelou, who re-cited doggerel at William Clinton’s inauguration: “We needed him. And out of that great need Barack Obama came.”
The White House did nothing to discourage any of this. On Inauguration Day, its home page ran a huge portrait of Mr. Obama, with the banner headline: “CHANGE HAS COME to AMERICA.”
The Washington, DC public schools announced well in advance that they would declare a holiday on Inauguration Day. The district hardly had a choice: Huge numbers of black teachers and students would have skipped school anyway. Not to be lacking in piety, schools in suburban Maryland and Virginia also closed to let students experience the event. Needless to say, there were no school closings for George Bush’s inauguration.
The University of Virginia managed to stay open but suspended classes for three hours during the ceremony and set up big-screen televisions in the basketball arena. Provost Arthur Garson, Jr. explained that it was to let students “participate in this exercise in democracy.” When it was pointed out that the university had never suspended classes for an “exercise in democracy” before, campus PR flack Carol Wood explained that there had been great interest in the election among young people and that “students told us they wanted to hear live–with their friends–what President-elect Obama would have to say in his inaugural address.”
The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress announced an unprecedented project of collecting videos and recordings of sermons preached during inauguration week. The center is a public collection that includes interviews after such national turning points as the Pearl Harbor and September 11 attacks. The head of the Folklife Center explained that “if a historian asks ‘How did Americans react to Obama’s inauguration?’ we’ll have immediate responses to this powerful event.” Bishop Gregory Palmer was to preach at Foundry United Methodist Church, which President Clinton and his family at-tended. “It’s a moment of great adulation, joy and accomplishment for all persons in this nation, whether they voted for the president-elect or not,” he said.
Perhaps the most astonishing bit of adulation took place on January 6. Even before Mr. Obama had served a single day in the Oval Office, liberal New York Congressman Jose Serrano introduced a bill to repeal the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which limits the president to two terms.
The inauguration was distinguished by some things that did not happen. For 38 years, the city of Alexandria, just across the Potomac from Washington, has let the United Daughters of the Confederacy fly Confederate flags on January 19 in celebration of Robert E. Lee’s birthday. This year, city manager James Hartmann explained that Alexandria was too busy with “inaugural traffic and crowd control, access and security issues,” and would permit no Confederate flag-flying. The real reason, of course, was that pro-Obama sentiment had to be allowed to sweep all before it.
The Obama “brand” is now so strong that businesses have tied themselves to it. Corporations usually steer clear of appearing to favor a party or candidate for fear of losing customers whose politics differ, but businessmen are in full swoon, just like celebrities and academics. Given their liberal customer base, hippie Vermont ice cream makers Ben and Jerry probably lost no sales because of their Obama-themed offering, “Yes, Pecan.” The same is true for yuppie-oriented Ikea with its “Embrace Change” campaign, upscale soft-drink company Jones Soda and its “Orange You Glad for Change Cola,” and coffee giant Starbuck’s offer of free lattes to people who volunteered for Mr. Obama’s community service program. But Southwest Airlines may loose customers who don’t appreciate its “Yes you can” promotion, and donut maker Krispi Kreme could make enemies with its free inaugural donut giveaway. Pepsi has changed its logo to resemble the “O” logo from the Obama campaign, and is trying to piggyback on Obama mania with its “Refresh Our Nation” campaign. Its pre-inaugural ads called Mr. Obama “the man who is about to refresh our nation,” and like Southwest Airlines, it also is pushing a “Yes you can” theme.
Madison Avenue is scrambling to find black models who look like First Daughters Sasha and Malia, and the maker of Beanie Baby toys is selling Sweet Sasha and Marvelous Malia dolls. The Obama Victory Plate went on sale shortly after the election. For $19.99, you could “own a piece of history”–a dinner plate with a color portrait of “our first African American commander in chief” that fully captured his “confident smile and kind eyes.” Something called the National Collector’s Mint was hawking the Official Obama Lincoln Coin for $19.95 (Lincoln on one side, Mr. Obama on the other). Clad in 71 mg of .999 fine silver, this “non-circulation Liberian legal tender” comes complete with serial numbered certificate of authenticity. Says one happy purchaser, “Barack has opened my eyes and made me believe that anything is possible. It’s a feeling I want to hold on to and the Obama coin is perfect.”
There are Obama coffee mugs, ties, and T-shirts, Obama silk jackets and earrings, a commemorative Obama mantelpiece clock, and even a Napa Valley 2005 Merlot bottled as Obama Limited Special Reserve. Budweiser advertized its new American Ale as “Inuagur ale,” and the new president even has his own “action figure,” courtesy of the unfortunately named Jailbreak Toys.
Mr. Obama has risen to new heights as the guest star in Marvel Comics’ Amazing Spider-Man Number 583, in which an evil villain tries to disrupt the inauguration. Spider-Man foils the plot and earns a “fist bump” from the grateful president. The first edition of the comic sold out within hours, and the company quickly ran through two more printings of what it expects to be the best-selling comic in decades. Marvel editor in chief Joe Quesada, insists he would have produced a presidential comic book for a John McCain victory, if the Republican had been a Spider-Man fan like Mr. Obama.
Obama-huckstering has grown so intense that government lawyers are trying to contain it. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki says they want to “protect the presidential image while being careful not to squelch the overwhelming enthusiasm that the public has for the president.”
Viral marketing is a new advertising technique that broadcasts videos, images, and messages on Internet social networking sites. David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s chief strategist, used viral marketing very effectively during the campaign, and appears to have plans to use it to whoop the new administration. Shortly after the inauguration, a video began circulating of Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, Cameron Diaz, and others pledging their devotion to the new president. Their puppy-dog adoration is eerie and cultish, and would be called “Nazi” if a Republican had inspired it.
All this prostration before the altar of Obama cries out for ridicule, but gag writers and comedians insist there isn’t anything funny about the man. He’s too cool and too wonderful to parody. In fact, the media are parodying themselves.
In the Washington, DC radio market, there is one 24-hour FM news station, WTOP. After the election, it declared itself the “Inauguration Station” and breathlessly counted down the days to January 20. Almost every day it aired fawning interviews with officials from the inaugural committee and incoming administration. After the inauguration, WTOP started a new series, The First Hundred Days, which is a daily recap of what The Great Man did for us today. It sounds like Radio Pyongyang worshipping Kim Jong-il, whose birth is said to have been marked by the appearance of a new star.
Cable station MSNBC now acts like the broadcast arm of the Obama administration. One of its hosts, Chris Matthews, said he felt a “thrill going up” his leg after an Obama speech, and MSNBC joined Star-buck’s to broadcast inauguration coverage at 650 coffee shops. MSNBC also piped its feed to movie theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Boston, Washington, and 14 other major cities. NBC anchor Brian Williams told late-night talk-show host David Letterman that Mr. Obama was the first positive presidential choice “after a line of what the ordinary voter would maybe describe as bad choices or choices of evils, for years, generations.”
In March, both ABC and NBC will release special-edition collectors’ DVDs of their inauguration broadcasts. CBS will give away 50 camcorders–to a person in each state–so he can record how President Obama’s first 100 days are transforming his community. Clips from the videos will air on the CBS Evening News. CNN is hawking inauguration T-shirts it calls “some of the most historic shirts money can buy.” One reads: “Obama raises hand, lifts a nation.”
The New York Times, Washington Post, and other newspapers are selling commemorative copies of inauguration issues. Time and Newsweek also put out inauguration editions stuffed with puff and flattering photos. A sample sentiment from Newsweek: “Obama’s win has set the stage for a newly defined American masculinity–one based on reason and sanity.”
Writing in Vanity Fair, former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers crowned Barack Obama the “most famous living person in the history of the world.” She is probably right. Even before taking office, he had schools and streets named after him, and soon a mountain in the Caribbean island of Antigua will bear his name. This unprecedented idolatry is wholly out of place for a republic founded on laws, not men–and especially not celebrities.