Las Vegas Sun: Barack Obama shines his magnetism on Vegas, as observers try to define his appeal
By J. Patrick Coolican
Sen. Barack Obama hugged half the people on stage after his speech Friday and went down into the crowd, and the flashes started.
Cell phone cameras, digital cameras, professional shooters. It was dark, but the flashes kept revealing his wide grin as the workers of Culinary 226 reached to touch him.
Obama drew 10,000 in Oakland, 15,000 in a light rain in Austin, Texas, 3,500 his last time in Las Vegas.
Sen. Thomas Eagleton said in the days before his death this month that he had not seen people so eager to physically touch a candidate since Robert F. Kennedy.
Awhile back, a photographer for People magazine captured Obama on a beach in nothing but swim trunks, and the national cooing was audible. Can we imagine a comparable episode with another politician? (Do we want to?)
That may be because Obama is beyond the realm of mere candidate. He's now in another cultural sphere, the upper reaches of celebrity shared with the likes of Oprah or Bono.
Political observers can't quite explain it, beyond noting that he seems to have tapped into the American psyche despite playing in an arena - politics - that many people consider boring, even ugly.
Pop culture and communications experts, however, do have theories about the mania.
"His appeal is that he sounds a lot more like a president you would hear on "The West Wing" than on CNN: the soaring rhetoric, the commanding presence - he's like the visionary political leader out of central casting," said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Center for Popular Television at Syracuse University.
"There's this appetite for Josiah Bartlet," he said, referring to the fictional president played by Martin Sheen.
For Ruth Sherman, a communications consultant and a blogger for Fast Company magazine, Obama's appeal results from well-practiced communication techniques. "It's not an accident. I think people who are good at connecting, which is what he's good at, I think they learn the value of it at a young age.
"These skills are concrete and they're learned," Sherman continued. "They're not born that way. It just looks like it, because he seems so comfortable in his own skin."
Pepper Schwartz of the University of Washington is an expert on appeal of another sort. She likened the attraction to Obama to infatuation.
"He's a very attractive candidate in a number of ways, and it's hard to separate him being good looking from his delivery, which seems to be so honest and straightforward," Schwartz said.
"The entire package is very attractive . The package is so good, that you get persuaded before you know what's really said."
For Obama, this kind of talk is dangerous, conservative talk radio fodder.
In a Sun interview Friday, he said the energy around his candidacy is a function of his message, and this particular historical moment.
"As I travel around the country, what I'm convinced of is that the country is deeply ready for change, and they're paying a lot of attention, and I think the approach I've taken to the issues, which offers a common sense, pragmatic, hopeful agenda for change is one that people are interested in, and particularly young people."
Nevertheless, Obama offers a compelling personal history laid out in his book "Dreams of My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance." In an age of incessant confession, via blogs and Myspace, his accomplished memoir places him squarely in the present.
His father was a Kenyan goat herder, his mother a white Kansan, and he was born in Hawaii in 1961. He was raised by his mother in Hawaii and Indonesia and graduated from Columbia in New York in 1983.
Obama moved to Chicago to become a community organizer. He admits to some adolescent drifting before becoming the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. He could have had a job at any rich firm in America, or gone straight to politics. Blair Underwood based his "L.A. Law" character, at least in part, on Obama.
Instead, he returned to Chicago, where he took on civil rights cases and taught law.
He was elected to the Illinois state senate, and after eight years, his national career was launched in a speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Hints about his appeal today can be found in the language and cadences of that speech.
"The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an 'awesome God' in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states.
"We coach Little League in the blue states and yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states."
Obama writes much of his own material, which is fluid and occasionally soaring.
Evan Thomas, a Robert Kennedy biographer and editor at Newsweek, said Obama sounds more genuine by writing his own words because, by definition, the words are his alone.
Thomas, however, drew a distinction between Obama and Kennedy. The latter was more of a rabble-rouser, while Obama is more cautious, he said.
Thomas also noted the difference in eras. "This is not 1968. Those were pre-revolutionary times," he said, citing urban riots and the war draft.
Still, few would dispute that the nation is at a political impasse and many voters are waiting for someone to break through it.
Leo Braudy, an expert in politics and popular culture at the University of Southern California, said "when things get polarized, you get into this either/or situation, and the kind of candidates who galvanize people in those situations are people who can bridge those gaps ."
Obama echoed this in the interview. "We engage in a lot of either/or debates. For failing schools, the answer is either more money, or vouchers," he said.
There's no denying the raw energy of his campaign. But he acknowledged that it is unlikely to carry through the next 20 months to the White House.
His chief rivals, Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards, have better organizations, in Nevada and elsewhere.
"I'm mindful that big crowds don't translate into caucus-goers, so it's going to be important for us to channel this energy into organization," Obama said.
To do that, he needs his charisma to raise money and recruit top political talent, as Clinton, Edwards and other Democrats have done, and build organizations from the ground up.
As Thompson, the pop culture expert, said: "It's great for act one, but we need to see how this will translate into act two and act three."
Or, as Schwartz noted, "Infatuation leads to deep engagement or deep disappointment. It could be, he's even better than we thought; or it could be, nope."