Barack Obama was a rock star on the campaign trail and his aura went undimmed in his first few months of office. But then he began taking too many curtain calls. The applause subsided, but he kept coming back to center stage to try harder to wow us. He forgot what every star must learn, that you've got to know when to get off that center stage. If you don't have anything new to say, shut up. This applies even to presidents.
He's reaching for applause lines with the same ol' same ol'. So his poll numbers begin to shrink. He pushes, and pushes, a flawed health care scheme without having anything new to add. Then he goes off script to accuse the Cambridge, Mass., cops of behaving "stupidly" in the arrest of professor Henry Louis Gates, and loses the applause of fans in the second balcony.
When Obama replaced George W. Bush as the top banana, his speech if not his politics was dramatically refreshing. We were relieved to listen to someone who wouldn't muff his lines, miss a cue or garble the English language. Even those who disagreed with what the new president had to say appreciated his speechifying skills. We became a collective version of Moliere's "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme," delighted to discover a leader who could speak prose.
But we also discovered that a golden-tongued devil could deceive us with the alchemy of smooth talk at a time when we need straight talk. Great rhetoricians inevitably betray a weakness, small though it may be. That's why the poet John Milton gave Satan the best lines, sprinkled with vivid similes and sparkling metaphors, in "Paradise Lost." All the better to deceive. By comparison, God in His heaven is plain to the point of boring, but the smart reader gets the divine meaning.
Nobody likes being deceived. When the Congressional Budget Office said Obama's health care numbers were wrong and his scheme would cost a lot more than we had been told, some of us grew suspicious. When the accountants at the celebrated Mayo Clinic said the cure was worse than the disease, more of us decided that we didn't want the president's medicine. When the Blue Dog Democrats vowed not to be rushed to such an important decision, a lot more of us began to listen closely to other sides.