Politics & Policy

The Obamafication of Obamamania

A 50-foot wall of media breaks over Europe.

It’s only Wednesday in Europe, but it’s already difficult to put into perspective the cultural significance of the visit starting tomorrow of Barack Obama, with his backup band, the three network anchors, fresh from the Middle East.

It’s huge. Think of Walt Disney arriving in Berlin, with mouse, duck, and dog. The excitement has been building for weeks ahead of the Berlin apparition. The entire continent is ga-ga for Obama, but nobody loves him more than the press, Euro- and otherwise, including the wires, who seem to be writing for each other.

“Europe is about to give Barack Obama one of the grandest of stages for statesmanship,” the Associated Press reported in a dispatch headlined “Obamamania in full flight ahead of tour of Europe.” Here’s a quote at length, since it pretty well says what most of the media here are saying:

In this city where John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all made famous speeches, Obama will find himself stepping into perhaps another iconic moment Thursday as his superstar charisma meets German adoration live in shadows of the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate. He then travels to Paris and London where he can expect to be greeted with similar adulation.

It’s not only Obama’s youth, eloquence and energy that have stolen hearts across the Atlantic. For Europeans, there have always been two Americas: one of cynicism, big business and bullying aggression, another of freedom, fairness and nothing-is-impossible dynamism.

If President Bush has been seen as the embodiment of that first America, Obama has raised expectations of a chance for the nation to redeem itself in the role that — at various times through history — Europe has loved, respected and relied upon.

There are some variations. Agence France-Presse, for example, saw things a little differently. Their piece was headlined “Obamania grips Europe ahead of visit by ‘John Kennedy of our time.’” So we see the AP has a “full flight” angle on Obamamania, versus AFP’s grip take.

But AFP comes up with more:

Obamania is all the rage ahead of [this] week’s visit to Berlin, Paris and London by a man described in newspapers as a “John Kennedy of our time” and Europe’s champion in the race for the White House…

The excellent reporting that uncovered a newspaper making a John Kennedy reference justifies the headline, since JFK, of course, is a media saint. This makes Obama, as the JFK of our time, a latter-day saint, which, for Europeans, is probably better than being a Muslim.

Meanwhile [adds AFP], in France, books about Obama sell like hot cakes.

Les cakes hot. There’s something new on the menu. Meanwhile, in a land where gooey cakes are actually served hot, the Independent covers Obama the way Men’s Health covers workout programs:

Barack Obama for beginners

The most lionised US politician since JFK visits Europe next week. Mass outbreaks of Obama-mania are expected. Are you prepared?

The piece snark-snipes the competitive zeal of hard-working American journalists who are “outdoing each other in a race to produce the fluffiest, most inconsequential coverage of the candidate. On Wednesday, cable news breathlessly reported that Obama had spent more time in the gym than on the campaign trail as he prepared for his European tour. We also now know the contents of the candidate’s iPod…,” which, the Indy adds wryly, is apparently Bob Dylan. “He has at least 30 Bob Dylan songs on his iPod, including the entire Blood On The Tracks album.” The story runs for miles.

The Guardian is slightly more balanced, weaving a bit of coverage of John McCain, the other presidential candidate, between their Obama fixes. The big McCain story is about his feverish imagination: “McCain accuses media of favourable bias toward Obama.” The BBC, of course, is still peddling its theory that Obama ultimately may be brought down by “Southern redneck Americans” and the racism they will demonstrate if they vote against Obama. Full Obamafication doesn’t actually hit the U.K. for a few more days, and when it does, it will no doubt be muted by Gordon Brown’s superpower, which is to induce sleep in all who hear, see, or touch him.

Meanwhile, in France, the capture of Radovan Karadzic in Serbia on Monday has momentarily distracted the press, but it’s only a moment. France will be Obamafied later this week, when the JFK of our time meets the Nicolas Sarkozy of Western European daylight savings time. Le Monde (subscription, not worth it, audio file, etc.) does some preliminary analyzing, via UCLA’s Frank Gilliam, who reminds French readers that “American whites” are “intimidated by truly African-American men, in particular.” But not by Obama, who is “bi-racial” and therefore “a bit less threatening.” Obama’s wife? “She’s actually more threatening.”

For now, the big gig is Berlin, where, the Kölinishe Rundschau predicts, a million Germans may turn out to hear an American politician who, the Berliner Morgenpost cleverly observes, can only be compared to John F. Kennedy. The Berliner Kurier’s much more direct headline: “The Black Kennedy.” And so on.

Anyway, the gist: Europeans really really want Obama to be the next U.S. president, just as they wanted John Kerry to be the current president. The Daily Telegraph’s poll last May showing Europe’s overwhelming preference for Obama — findings repeated today by Gallup — are everywhere in the coverage of Tour Obama 2008. Seven of every ten Italians, two-thirds of all French and Germans, and half of Britons sober enough to be able to respond to a poll question would vote for Obama to be president of the U.S.A. if they could.

However, if you asked the French, the Germans, the British and the Italians if they’d vote for a black candidate to govern their own countries, the results would be different, even if the candidate were the black JFK du jour. Those million Germans in Berlin will all be long gone before a man or woman of African descent becomes chancellor, prime minister or president of any European country. The French had a hard enough time voting for a chap of Hungarian descent; the odds of them voting for a “rat” — as they quaintly call their North African immigrants — are impossibly long.

There’s also the real significance of the trip itself, just incidentally. So far, it’s proved that Obama can catch a plane, draw a crowd, and not say something stupid — two out of three better than George W. Bush, but not exactly impressive in real terms.

Ultimately, with Obama, it’s the substance problem. Not drugs (inhaling, Obama truthfully said, was kind of the point of smoking marijuana), but content. Obama’s speeches are like Cocteau Twins’ songs. Each one is a sugar hiccup of audacious hope: they sound great, but the words don’t mean anything, no matter which language is used.

Maybe that’s why the two candidates — Barack Obama and the old, white guy who’s not in Europe — are running neck and neck among voters whose votes actually matter. Also, far from the Obamafications in Berlin and Paris, there’s frankly not much interest. I asked the guy fixing my Peugeot today what he thought of Obama’s upcoming visit. He snorted the ash off his cigarette and told me my problem was the water pump.

— Denis Boyles is the author, most recently, of Superior, Nebraska. He teaches at The Brouzils Seminars.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...


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