With the election just a week away and Barack Obama pulling away from John McCain, tiny tendrils of trepidation are starting to drift over the liberal members of the commentariat and the political press corps.
If McCain wins, ample boilerplate exists from which to form their disposable Wednesday, Nov. 5, stories about his victory: “He took risks and they paid off … courage of his convictions … left for dead one time too many … the pundits eat crow … how could the pollsters have gotten it so wrong—again! … Will his White House harbor Straight Talk or double talk?”
But if Obama wins, these scribes know that they’ll be facing the toughest assignment of their careers. They’ve all oversubscribed to the notion that Obama’s candidacy is momentous, without parallel, and earth-shattering, so they can’t file garden-variety pieces about the “winds of change” blowing through Washington. They’re convinced that not only the whole world will be reading but that historians will be drawing on their words. Will what I write be worthy of this moment in time? they’re asking themselves. It’s a perfect prescription for performance anxiety.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say that the press corps is in the tank for Obama even if they’re voting for him in overwhelming numbers. Obama irritates many of the reporters who cover him because he’s so controlling and inaccessible. So they’re not as much in love with Obama as they’re in love with the idea of Obama, of the “meaning” of his run for the presidency, of the redemption he offers a sinful nation that scratched slavery into its liberty-loving Constitution.
The windows of this mind-set are provided by Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, for whom the Obama election is a national referendum on racism; the New York Times’ Nicholas D. Kristof, for whom an Obama presidency is an opportunity to “rebrand” our nation and “find a path to restore America’s global influence”; E.J. Dionne, who sees an Obama presidency as representing a chance to “rekindle the sense of possibility and transformation” in American life; and a swooning Andrew Sullivan, who almost a year ago speculated that Obama might be “that bridge to the 21st century that Bill Clinton told us about.” For Chris Matthews, of course, the Obama candidacy is a “thrill” going up his leg, one that will arc over his torso and detonate his head in the event of a victory.
The leading Obama cheerleader among the commentariat is Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, whose “erection of the heart” for the candidate has no match. Alter sees the presidential election as a world referendum on the United States and “the common sense and decency of the American people.” Obama symbolizes hope over fear, and his election would produce an “Obama Dividend” that would “blow the minds of people in the Middle East and other regions, and help restore American prestige.” Obama, Alter continues, “knows how to think big, elevate the debate and transport the public to a new place.”
Such overwriting leaves Alter little acreage upon which to build a monument if his candidate wins, but the problem isn’t Alter’s alone. Even political reporters who have scrubbed from their copy any evidence of Obama lust face the same Nov. 5 dilemma as the commentariat. How do you pack all the Obama touch points—healing, hope, change, civility, the second coming of Camelot, post-boomer politician, inspirer of youth, great uniter, world president, and so on—into one story without sounding hagiographic? Isn’t that what the commemorative issue of People magazine is for? Then again, how do you write about Obama’s victory without looping in the touch points? Hence the performance anxiety.
Reporters do their least self-conscious work when they’re startled by a story they hadn’t prepared to write. Think of the astonishing coverage of the 9/11 attack, natural disasters, and the 2000 election-that-would-not-end. But giving a reporter (or a pundit) too much time to think about a historic event such as VE Day, the moon landing, the fall of Communism, or the release of Nelson Mandela is like entering him into a grandiosity competition to see who can squeeze the most poetry out of his keyboard. Suddenly, everybody with a notepad and a word processor thinks he’s Norman Mailer.
Every new president gets a honeymoon, of course, but not like the one we’re likely to witness. As the countdown to the Obama rapture accelerates this week, say a prayer for the press corps skeptics, naysayers, cynics, pragmatists, faultfinders, and scoffers who’d rather not dance at Obama’s magisterial ball. And if they write something noteworthy, send it my way.
“Erection of the heart” is the sweet phrase Lester Bangs coined to describe his physiological response to seeing Elvis Presley in concert for the first time. Thanks to Christopher Beam for the column idea. Styling by Chris Wilson. Faculty adviser, Emily Yoffe. Coffee by Bouvé. Lester Bangs quotation provided by Bill Wyman. Again, the e-mail address for noteworthy skeptical articles about the Obama ascendancy is firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word anxiety in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to email@example.com.