Do we need a hero as President?

01/20/07

[Cross-posted at Nation-Building.]

Rick Shenkman, in an excellent essay, argues persuasively that we don’t.  Adapting a framework of Bruno Bettelheim’s, he compares JFK, Reagan, and Obama as different types of heroic figures in the American psyche.  I highly recommend the entire essay, though I would take some issue with Shenkman’s postulate that Democrats have not seen an Obama-like figure since the 1960’s with JFK and RFK, one who inspires “ecstatic joy.”  For many activists, Howard Dean inspired that kind of mindless ecstasy in 2004.  Perhaps for a broader spectrum, Jesse Jackson inspired it in 1988.

Here’s Shenkman’s punchline regarding Obama:

What kind of hero is Obama? I don’t think we can know for sure quite yet, though he seems very JFKish to me. But that he is in the heroic mold can’t be doubted.

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether what we need is a hero or a president. Sometimes presidents can be heroes. But rarely. Me. I’d settle for a president who shares my basic outlook and is competent at the job. I’ll leave the hero stuff to Friday nights at the cinema.

If you’re looking for a “competent,” pragmatic figure like Shenkman is, then you should go vote for Bill Richardson.  Seriously — there’s no shame in that at all.  The guy has been a Congressman, Energy Secretary, Ambassador to the United Nations, and two-term Governor.  He’s been a special envoy to North Korea and just finished making peace in Darfur.  He’s easily the most qualified person to seek the office of President since Alexander Haig, and possibly since Adlai Stevenson.

But I won’t be joining you.  Because I believe the Presidency isn’t solely about government, it’s about inspiration, about uplifting the national character.  People need someone to look up to, to pin their hopes and dreams on, to be an almost mythical (in the Bettelheim sense) role model.  There’s an inherent conflation between the mythical and the fairy-tale in politics: the ordinary person is raised up to become extraordinary, and is then deified upon reaching that height.

Where would America be if John Kennedy had not asked us “what you can do for your country”?  Conversely, where would America be if Bill Clinton or George Bush had displayed one tenth the heroism of a Kennedy or a Dean?  The body politic needs every so often to be renewed by larger-than-life inspiration.  It is something that cannot be provided by a mentor, a local office-holder, or even a religious figure (inasmuch as religious leaders do not speak for all Americans).  It is uniquely the prerogative of the President to inspire America at a single stroke, and Americans hunger for this as never before.

I oppose Obama precisely because he eschews this type of inspiration.  In his book The Audacity of Hope, he extols the virtues of “the pragmatic, nonideological attitude of the majority of Americans” (p. 34) and criticizes the Right for, of all things, its “passionate intensity” (p. 39).  But you cannot have transformational leadership without these things — without a passionate, desperate belief in the importance of an issue or a viewpoint.  John Edwards is an example of such a belief regarding poverty; Al Gore is an example regarding climate change.  Speechifying about “civility” while poor people starve and the earth hurtles down the road to disaster, as Obama likes to do, is brainless pablum.

I believe America is past due for a hero President.  In fact, I believe the American psyche is desperate for one.  Whether such a figure will emerge in 2008 is a question worth pondering, perhaps worth influencing.  But I refuse to abandon the field to support a candidate who has no interest in transforming America.

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