The Great Man

I watched the “great man” closely on television last night. He was either just himself or he has lost himself.

Barak Obama came on the scene as a startling talent. He came out of the darkness to run for the United States senate in a major state. The details of the coincidental success aren’t important because it was only the springboard to unbelievable accomplishment after a short stint in congress. Timing? Talent? Force of personality? In retrospect it is so hard to say. But it was a meteoric rise.

Yet there is a certain strangeness to his allure. Most people saw him as an amazing campaigner in his salad days. He was never flamboyant but he had reserved energy that seemed to be wanting to get out but was always on the verge. You could feel it under his delivery and you imagined more than what you saw and heard. He had wallop in a low key and he seemed so genuine in a very natural way. He wasn’t overreaching and his demeanor was such that while he was strong, handsome, articulate and charming he still had the common touch of a former community organizer. And he was a writer.

He wrote most of his own stuff to begin with an he did it well. The language was down to earth but it did inspire and give people the impression that you should have confidence in this guy. He seemed authentic and his language confirmed it. And right around that time it became obvious that he was working to be a great actor!

It is one thing to be a good or great speaker and communicator it is quite another to be a “great man.” That is a role that you must learn to play. It mostly involves public performances at a very high level but it also includes the realization that “never let your hair down when they can see you.”

Big movie stars of the classic period personify this image building. Some celebrities of the present day give you a sense of that and their actions beget a larger than life aura. There is a huge difference between FDR and Harry Truman as contrasts of the “great man” syndrome.

The problem always is how the person involved keeps this in perspective. The so called “bubble” that comes with the territory can sweep people up in a fantasy world that is real and it can powerfully affect all parts of the personality.

And it is tiresome to play the role. It is demanding. It is both intoxicating and exhausting. It never lets up completely. A vacation is never pure “pleasure.” Call it the Royal Family syndrome.

All politicians who work from a script are performers, presenters, and yes, actors. Acting is the business of taking an action that usually involves dialogue and making it appear as if it is being created spontaneously. It may involve re-creation or a new version of an event. But the crux of the process is that the performer/presenter has rehearsed and prepared the material and actions in a carefully crafted way to make it seem as if it has sprung right out of the mind at the correct time. It is not easy to do and some people are not able to do it even passably well.

Most people can be brought to a fairly high level though if they have the interest, patience, a modicum of natural skills and high quality training. People can teach themselves with the help of friends, observers, technology (cam corders etc.) time and experience. But gifted coaches, teachers, directors and specialists can make all the difference. The top politicians are all pretty good actors.

Just as most people think that a movie is made by collecting a bunch of people and have them make up lines after you turn on the camera most people see politicians making a speech as people who are speaking their thoughts and telling us who they are! The audience will, at least, start out thinking that the presenter is sincerely and honestly conveying their personal beliefs. In acting we say that once you can fake sincerity you are on the way!

The problem is that it is hard to maintain the trust in an audience. Trust is the coin of the realm in politics! Once you lose it you can probably never get it back. Even a tinge of hypocrisy can hinder believability. That is one place where a politician can never let down. Other celebrities can overcome a hypocritical slip but not politicians, with some notable exceptions.

There is a novel and a movie called The Great Man from the middle 50s that deals with a television personality who is less than he seems and he lets his real personality come out on camera. There is a wonderful movie with a screenplay by Bud Schulberg starring Andy Griffith in his first movie role called A Face in the Crowd that explores the same situation. But there have been innumerable “slip ups” by politician with either troubling or disastrous consequences for their careers.

How much of the above is applicable to Barack Obama?

As a performer/presenter he has been only occasionally at his highest level since his first campaign. And, lets face it, he, like all second term presidents, has the familiarity problem. He has lost his novelty factor. He is overexposed. People are tired of him. They know what to expect and are easily “turned off.”

But I think it is more than that. He appears tired and methodical. He isn’t as “up” for it as he can be. And he is getting worn down by the pressure of office as the world tightens around him. He gets “boxed in” by circumstances and probably doesn’t even know when he is telling the truth anymore. And then there is the staff problem. He may have written or edited his scripted speeches more in the past. But I must say that his rhetoric has never soared, at least for me. This may be partly due to his preference or a desire for undramatic and unemotional delivery. That is always his “way.” Almost all the pundits and supporters remark about his “matter of fact” style of speaking even when it isn’t scripted. There are a number of problems with that.

First and foremost, if you don’t connect with people at an emotional level it is very hard to influence them. He really seemed to sense that as a candidate when he first came on the national radar. He was much more relaxed and natural and gave short burst of high energy. We have really not seen that since he became president! You have to wonder why.

The other problem that unemotional delivery causes is that it tends to lower the sincerity quotient. That was so noticeable in the Syria speech. He described the atrocities that he blamed on Assad in such a bland, flat way that they almost seemed benign! He looked directly into the camera which is so hard to do well and his effort can best be described as dull! But we have never gotten memorable lines, phrases or descriptions from him. You might blame his speech writers and we know he has them. But he doesn’t do humor very well either. His performances at the Gridiron Club are competent at best with some very good material.

The word COOL is most attached to him. But he is not Humphrey Bogart cool. He comes across as too cerebral to be a real warm and sympathetic person after you get past the celebrity. And now after a considerable number of political gaffs, the Syria crisis is only one example, his stature has shrunk. No doubt about it.

Can he get it back? Can he re-bloom into the candidate of his youth? Doubtful. They have seen the “great man” when he wasn’t so great. The emperor without his bvds. Is there a bottle he can climb out of again? Can he find the leadership qualities in a crisis that will gain him Churchillian status?

And how much should we expect of our elected officials at all levels when they must raise such enormous sums of money to get elected and re-elected? And the rule is that you are never really elected until you are re-elected! Obama came back into office with a billion dollar albatross around his neck.

Do we expect too much of our office holders and especially those at the top. We disparage the legislative process as being too cumbersome and tedious. And how do you find an unbiased judge?

Are we victims of the historians who subscribe all actions of the past and present as the work of “great men” who are great leaders? And do we ever closely examine the immoral actions of our heroic leaders and what they encouraged their followers to do to insure that they got credit for the “victories.” Western culture wants to look for answers in individual accomplishment rather than the cooperative work of large organized groups. I wonder why?

And Tom Paxton wrote a song asking his son what he learned in school and one of the verses goes like this:

I learned that our nation must be strong.
It’s always right and never wrong.
Our leaders are the greatest men
And we elect ‘em again and again!

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