The Politics of Personality

David Stokes
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Posted: Sep 06, 2009 12:01 AM
The Politics of Personality

Thomas Cronin, currently the McHugh Professor of American Institutions and Leadership at Colorado College, wrote an essay nearly 40 years ago entitled “Superman: Our Textbook President.” He had studied college political science textbooks for the previous 15 years and found a trend in the discussion of the U.S. presidency, “by symbolizing the past and future greatness of America and radiating inspirational confidence, a president can pull the nation together while directing us toward the fulfillment of the American dream.”

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It was an era when the idea of an energetic executive was transcendent in America. Eisenhower was old and irrelevant, so the thinking went, and John F. Kennedy came along promising a robust exploration and occupation of the future. He said things like: “a chief executive who is praised primarily for what he did not do, the disasters he prevented, the bills he vetoed,” would simply not be enough for the big-bad challenges of the future.

Too bad for those who really liked Ike. Or Nixon.

I was a school kid growing up at the time, and I recall being very inspired by President Kennedy. In fact, my father used JFK’s love for history to get me similarly interested. Yep, while most others heeded Camelot’s clarion call about a compelling future, the president helped to get me interested in the past. I love irony.

My first history books were gifts given at the A&P store in Taylor, Michigan. Dad only had to continue buying flowery drinking glasses to build my fledgling library. Mom got the glasses for the cupboards and I got the books. President Kennedy wrote the “Forward” to them. I was hooked.

The image of the presidency is very powerful, especially to kids. And because it is so potent, it should be used with great care – to inspire and encourage things all of us can agree on: stay in school, eat your veggies, don’t eat the paste, and respect the flag. Mr. Kennedy even went so far as to promote physical fitness standards. It was all very patriotic. And I cannot remember my parents, both loyal Nixon-Republicans, being all that put out about it.

But that was then.

It was a different time in our nation. Maybe there are too many naïve people, but in those days even small-government conservatives got in long lines on weekends for vaccinations, or “sugar cubes” to promote the eradication of certain diseases. We were sheep and Ozzie and Harriet were on the tube.

Then came Vietnam, LBJ’S “credibility gap,” Watergate – and every “gate” thereafter, and the liberals told us to “question authority,” down with the Imperial Presidency, after all the king had been killed and no one really could replace Camelot. So the nation went from division to division, catalyzed by radicals with their rules. Disrupt, ridicule, polarize, and make sure that the liar Lyndon, “Tricky Dick,” that buffoon Gerald Ford, that doddering old man Ronald Reagan, and two guys named Bush, never get taken seriously. They are not at all worthy heirs to the man who was shot in Dallas.

Now it’s all much better – finally there is a man to match these mountainous times, someone deserving of our, well, allegiance. And we know this is true because really, really cool entertainers are pointing the way:

“What’s Your Pledge?” “To be a servant to our president,” says Demi Moore. “To be of service to Barack Obama,” says Anthony Kiedis.

We are witnessing something beyond the every-day attempt to package a political leader in a compelling way. In fact, we may very well be watching the emergence of a cult of personality. To some, even the suggestion of this is absurd because we associate such things with despotism. How could a free society fall prey to such a thing?

Well, where are the radical mantras of “question authority” now? Where have all the liberal flowers gone? They’ve gone to Washington, D.C., everyone. And because children are our future, let’s teach them well and let them lead the way. It’s time to kick the “juvenile idealization of the President” up a notch.

What started with Kennedy did not end with Kennedy; it only got postponed for several decades. On that fateful day in 1963, so many parents had to handle questions like the one given to a Houston mother: “When my little girl came out of school she told me someone had killed the President, and her thoughts were – since the President was dead, where would we get our food and clothes from?”

In that little girl’s mind, JFK was a lot more than just the President of the United States.

Many during the Great Depression – and for decades thereafter – had portraits of Franklin Roosevelt in their homes. Few homes had paintings of Truman or Eisenhower. But, then came Kennedy. Out came the portraits of a new heroic and benevolent leader – a martyr “we hardly knew.”

Ever see pictures of LBJ in homes? Nixon? Ford? Carter? Reagan? Anyone named Bush? Clinton?

How about Barack Obama? Oh yeah. They are popping out on walls all over America because, like FDR and JFK were, Mr. Obama is being increasingly seen as a colossus standing above it all. He’s a super leader who can do super things. And children in school next Tuesday will have that image reinforced to them, irrespective of what is actually said in the speech.

A cult of personality happens when mass media creates and fosters an idealized and heroic public image for a political leader. It is most often connected with totalitarian regimes, but, as Jonah Goldberg has pointed out in his book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, the original use of the word “totalitarian” described a “humane” society, “one in which everyone is taken care of and contributes equally. It was an organic concept where every class, every individual, was part of the larger whole.”

Sound familiar?

And of course, it just infuriates liberals to hear even the suggestion that their agenda might indeed resemble fascism, because for so long the mantra has been that “right-wing” conservatives are fascists. But, put simply, true conservatives do not believe in big government and are all about individual liberty – two traits that are decidedly anti-fascist. Fascism is about the expansion, glorification, and predominance of the state – that’s liberalism, not conservatism.

But dull facts are no match for frenzied media. And young minds are no match for a massive campaign to foster the image of a president as more than what our constitution requires him – or her – to be.

Do I believe that we are on the verge of some kind of massive move toward “friendly totalitarianism” in America? No. But I do think that if it ever really happened here, it would travel along the same national nerve pathways that are being used by this White House right now.