< Obamapalooza


Friday, October 27, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. If the junior Democratic senator from Illinois was not already a household name after his acclaimed speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he certainly was this Monday.

REPORTER: The story that has caused a sensation tonight -- Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama. [APPLAUSE]

REPORTER: If the first test of the '08 presidential race is media attention during the '06 midterms, Barack Obama is this year's rock star.

REPORTER: Illinois Senator Barack Obama is the Democratic Party's great young hope.

REPORTER: Illinois Senator Barack Obama, the newest, and, at the moment, the brightest star -

BARACK OBAMA: Thank you!

REPORTER: - in the Democratic sky. He's been on the cover of Time, Newsweek -- even Men's Vogue.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The media were all abuzz about Obama after his appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, when he told Tim Russert that he might possibly -- perhaps -- almost certainly -- ah, heck, just say it.

TIM RUSSERT: But it's fair to say you're thinking about running for President in 2008.

BARACK OBAMA: It's fair, yes.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming as his announcement did, on the heels of the Time Magazine story and his new and well-received second book, media across the political spectrum are chanting, run, Barack, run. William Powers, who writes the "Off Message" column for the National Journal, has anatomized the rise of candidates in years past, and he joins us now. Bill, welcome back to the show.

WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you, Brooke. Great to be here.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you noted back in 2002 that there were, in fact, seven media milestones on the road to becoming a viable Presidential candidate. Is Obama on course?

WILLIAM POWERS: He is, in my opinion, very much sticking to the pattern, Brooke. There was getting to know you, which takes a few years, and that happened, of course, leading up to the convention where he gave his famous speech, and then that also encompasses step number two, which is the run-up. And now we're basically in number three. This explosion is kind of the validation, the "he has arrived, he is perfect." Step four is also happening now, which is the think-piece phase, where Obama is not just a person, he's a vehicle. He encapsulates all kinds of social trends.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And who's thinking about him?

WILLIAM POWERS: I think he may have set a new record for number of columnists who write about the same person in one week at The New York Times. He snagged almost every major columnist and slayed them all, including even the very difficult Michiko Kakutani reviewing his book. And then there are longer think pieces. Time Magazine had one by Joe Klein. There's a more kind of investigative/slash/think piece on the cover of Harper's. The list goes on and on.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So as he proceeds along this seven-step continuum, where has he fallen short?

WILLIAM POWERS: Well, number five is also starting to happen, which is the meta-piece, which is where people start to write about the Obama phenomenon as a phenomenon, and sort of try and step back from it and almost make fun of it a little bit, which is happening. Maureen Dowd's column was an example of that, where she tried to make light of the tidal wave, but she wound up saying [LAUGHS], hilariously, that he is intriguingly imperfect. [LAUGHTER] So that even his imperfections were intriguing [BROOKE LAUGHS] in Maureen Dowd's estimation. And finally, Brooke, that takes us to number six, a long lead-up to the next step that has not happened yet, which is the flop, which has happened to so many of these sort of ingénue candidates. The one I wrote about originally when I laid out these steps was John Edwards, who had the, at the time, notorious flop on Tim Russert's Meet the Press. Obama has cleared that gauntlet, but I have a feeling there's got to be something bad in store for him down the road, because there always is for one of these folks.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And sooner better than later?

WILLIAM POWERS: Yeah. I mean, the timing of the flop is very interesting and crucial. You know, Howard Dean had his flop at the worst possible time -- you know, the Dean scream moment. He peaked early and then he flopped late, in a way. [LAUGHTER] And Obama has talked about the problem of peaking early, and has said, you know, you can't really control these things, and he sort of has shrugged it off.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In this recent round of what a lot of people are calling Obama-mania, would you say that there is now a media consensus about Obama, that he's just a natural?

WILLIAM POWERS: Oh, I think there's a consensus that he is The Natural, the most preternatural political figure we have seen since the Kennedys. The Kennedys come up constantly in these comparisons.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Kennedys or one particular Kennedy?

WILLIAM POWERS: Bobby and John come up sometimes together, sometimes separately. All kinds of combinations of Kennedys come up. The Kennedy trope is actually a part of this whole process of the arrival of the new Democratic politician. You have to work in a Kennedy in some way. But Obama's arrival is unusually Kennedy-rich, partly because he himself harks back in a lot of his positions and his aspirations to those figures and that period. You know, Brooke, one of the things that hasn't come up in any of these pieces that I note about him is just kind of aesthetically the way he dresses, the way he wears his hair, his mannerisms, the way he talks. He's kind of a 1950s, early 1960s-looking guy. [BROOKE LAUGHS]Have you noticed that?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know what you mean. He has the boxy suits and the narrow ties, but it's sort of in a retro way, sort of more David Byrne than Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's got a hip feeling to it, but he also, it's like he stepped out of a Jack Lemmon movie or something -- that period. And it kind of, in a subconscious way, I think, it echoes this connection that people are making to that time.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, I am put in mind a little of the mania for Colin Powell that happened, partly because he is how we want to think of ourselves.

WILLIAM POWERS: Joe Klein writes about this in his Time cover story about Obama, the kind of the pleasure factor, particularly in the white person reacting to Obama. You know, there's almost a -- he didn't use this word -- but a self-congratulatory element to it, where we feel even better about ourselves because he is of mixed race and because he seems to represent this principle of the kind of country we'd like to live in.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill, thanks a lot.

WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you, Brooke. Great to be here.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: William Powers writes the "Off Message" column for the National Journal.