The Barack Bubble

David Stokes
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Posted: Aug 03, 2008 12:01 AM
The Barack Bubble

Even in this age of high-tech toys, two of my young grandsons can still be entertained by the emission of little iridescent spheres from a plastic loop that has been dipped in soapy water.  I am talking about bubbles – the kind that last for only a few seconds before bursting.  

A bubble can also be a metaphor.  Old King Solomon talked about emptiness in the ancient book of Ecclesiastes.  One word the wise ruler used to describe the fleeting nature of life without meaning was vanity – and it can be loosely translated as “soap bubbles.” 

Of course, most of us have heard about economic bubbles.  They occur when factors such as speculation drive prices to a level far beyond actual intrinsic value.  In the past few years we have seen a dot.com bubble, a Chinese stock bubble, and of course, most recently, the real estate bubble

Charles Mackay, a nineteenth century Scottish journalist, wrote a fascinating treatise entitled, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.  First published in 1841, the book chronicled “the most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes.”

Mr. Mackay describes an assortment of nefarious financial schemes dating back to the early 1700s.  He noted that they were then nicknamed Bubbles.  To him, this term was “the most appropriate that imagination could devise,” adding that, “the most absurd and preposterous of all, and which showed more completely than any other, the utter madness of the people, was one started by an unknown adventurer, entitled, ‘A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.’”

This could well describe American politics du jour.

When bubbles burst people who have been hypnotized by their splendor tend to be disappointed - like children who see something compelling one moment, only to witness sudden dissipation.  And sometimes, when bubbles connected to intensely personal concerns burst, there is discouragement – even disillusionment.

It might be constructive, maybe even essential, to think of the whole Barack Obama phenomenon as a gigantic bubble.  It has captured pan-cultural attention and transcends the humdrum of mere mortal politics.  Expectations are inflated.  Rational analysis has been muted.  Look, up in the sky – it’s a bird, it’s a plane no, it’s Super Senator above the political fray soaring in his designer soap bubble.

The value of Barack Obama’s stock is sky high these days.  His most devoted followers assume this upward trend will continue.  Happy days are just around the corner.  Can’t you just feel the love and unity?  Not to mention the change? 

And back on earth, those who should be watching more closely, and asking tough questions, seem to have temporarily (we can only hope) suspended their capacity for serious investigation while following the bubble-beacon here, there, and everywhere.

What does it say about legacy mainstream media outlets when it is left to the likes of Katie Couric to ask the man from Illinois an actual tough question with a measure of ferocity (at least for her)? 

Here is the problem, though.  No one, not even Barack “The Man Promising Personalized Pieces of Blue Sky” Obama, can possibly sustain the level of near universal affection and acclaim indefinitely.   Human glory tends to be a fleeting thing - especially the political variety.  In fact, the issue is not if Obama’s bubble will burst, but rather – when

And when it does, there will be a lot of unhappy American campers. 

There is a saying: “Motivation without implementation produces frustration.”  In the political arena this means that when someone inspires people without eventually following through, the result is significant disenchantment.  Barack Obama’s style over substance campaign is very much a bipolar candidacy.  We are seeing the manic phase now.

Stay tuned for the depressive future.

Rarely has a political figure generated the kind of near-universal acclaim that the junior senator from Illinois seems to receive.  His recent trip abroad drew enthusiastic crowds at every public event.  People sought to touch the hem of his garment.  Obama’s speech in Berlin was given before a crowd of more than 200,000.  Take that Camelot.

One German publication actually referred to Barack Obama as “President of the World.”  That’s heady stuff.  For an American politician to get that kind of response in Europe is remarkable.

But it is not unprecedented.

Ninety years ago another American received the royal treatment on the continent.  His name was Woodrow Wilson and he became an international hero, at least for a brief and shining moment.  Within days of the signing of the Armistice ending The Great War, the man who led our country into a war to make the world safe for democracy crossed the Atlantic to become president of his world. 

As Mr. Wilson’s train arrived at the Hoboken pier in New Jersey on the morning of December 4, 1918, a great crowd gathered to wish him a safe and prosperous voyage.  A band played the national anthem as the George Washington set sail on the ten-day trans-Atlantic voyage.   More than ten thousand people viewed the scene from a distance in lower Manhattan.  They wanted to witness history.  You see, not only was the chief executive going abroad to save the planet, he was, in fact, the first president up to that time to travel outside the country while in office.  Zeppelins hovered overhead.  Planes looped and swooped.  It was the media event of the decade.

When the ship reached the Port of Brest in France, it was met with even greater enthusiasm.  Margaret MacMillan, great-granddaughter of Wilson’s contemporary and collaborator at the Paris peace conference, David Lloyd-George, described the scene in her excellent book, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World:

“The streets were lined with laurel wreaths and flags.  On the walls, posters paid tribute to Wilson, those from right-wingers for saving them from Germany and those from the left for the new world he promised.  Huge numbers of people, many resplendent in their traditional Breton costumes, covered every inch of pavement, every roof, every tree.  Even the lampposts were taken.  The air filled with the skirl of Breton bagpipes and repeated shouts of ‘Vive l’Amérique! Vive Wilson!’”

Woodrow Wilson was the most popular man in the world.

But a year later it was different.  Someone in Barack Obama’s camp should start searching used bookstores, or the Internet, to find a copy of a 1964 book by Gene Smith.  It is directly on point.  The title says it all: When the Cheering Stopped.  President Wilson came to understand that the deafening sound of grand and glorious bombs bursting in air can, all too quickly, give way to the pathetic whimper of a bursting bubble.   

By 1920, the man who had so recently been hailed as the greatest international statesman ever, watched in physical and emotional brokenness as his nation rejected what he hoped would be his lasting legacy.   They voted Republican and would twice more in the decade.  Mr. Wilson died in 1924 after another in a long line of strokes.  But doubtless somewhere in the mix were complications due to a bubble that burst.  

People are fickle and the bigger the bubble the bigger the mess when it inevitably bursts.  Barack Obama is riding high now, and he carries the hopes and dreams of millions who have bought into the notion of nonspecific change.  But he will sooner or later descend from the heights according to the political law of gravity.   And when he falls to earth there may be weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. 

It would be infinitely better if the Barack bubble could somehow dissipate during the campaign, long before it threatens to leave soapy residue on the Oval Office floor – not to mention everywhere else.