Sunday, September 7, 2008

Obama Cult of Personality

Clearly, Barack Obama is the best-looking presidential candidate we've had, I argue, since John Fitzgerald Kennedy. No matter how you look at him, clothed, unclothed, lecturing, on the basketball court, hugging his wife, he's hot. You really would not want to see McCain in a picture like this. So let's get that out of the way. But last night I was watching a CNN "pseudodocumuntary" about him, that included extensive interviews with him, his wife, Michelle, and his sister, Maya. 

This led me to think about cults of personality, one of my obsessions in life. Obviously for anyone who reads this blog it's clear that I have Drunk the Kool-Aid for Barack Obama, and I will do whatever it takes to get him elected. But that doesn't absolve me from critically examining his electoral propaganda. My own Grandfather was a "charismatic" Senator who helped found a political party. In any case, all politicians do this, McCain plays on the War Hero trope, using the "I was a POW" as a get out of jail free card any time he doesn't want to answer a question, as the hot and brilliant Rachel Madow said on MSNBC (side bar, at last a lesbian on TV that promotes a positive image, well, Ellen does too, but this one is doing hard news).

Maybe I am more interested in Obama because he's "my" man and especially because of the way he rose to the top so young. His persona is such a huge part of his appeal and his image is iconic in a way that Bush's or McCain's is not. The "war hero" image is more of an abstract type, but we're not seeing silk screened images of McCain's face everywhere. Perhaps this is my perspective because I live in an area that had one of the highest number of votes for Obama in my state.

In any case, the man just hypnotizes you with that smile, and he knows it. They kept showing him smiling and then they talked about his father's charisma and his smile. Obama seemed well-aware of his father's charisma but recalled that everyone spoke of Obama Sr.'s intelligence and potential, but alcoholism frustrated his academic and political ambitions. Obama's school friends made references to his admiration for MLK and how the Civil Rights Movement was his inspiration for getting into politics. Obama definitely plays into MLK in the staging of his big rallies and in the call and response cadences of many of his speeches.

Yet it was interesting to me that nobody spoke about JFK in the special report. Many have said that Obama is modeling himself on JFK, for example, by writing books about his life to present himself in a heroic manner. I think his campaign is looking at the Kennedy image and that's in part what Ted and Carolyn respond to when they say no one since their relative has inspired people in such a way. 

Apparently, when Obama went to the Wailing Wall he deposited a prayer which somebody removed, read and then published. The prayer had to do with asking God to help him struggle against the sin of pride. It must be hard not to be arrogant if you're Barack Obama, but also hard not to be bitter when you face racism every day. Clearly he knows his own power and how to use his considerable charisma.


The people running his campaign are very image-savvy. They are young and know about branding. Obama's slogans are shorter than JFK's and thus easier to remember and reproduce, and also appealing to newness and hope. 

According to Michelle, on their first date, they went to the Art Institute and she was impressed by how much he knew about art. This is the third version of the first date that I have heard. In print I read they saw "Do the Right Thing." During the convention, Michelle said something else, which I cannot recall but I know it was not the museum because given my line of business I would have remembered. 

In any case, a tantalizing hint that he is as image literate as he is literate in everything else. 
I can't help but think of Warhol when I see the dual images of him that are everywhere in my neighborhood. (above) They have a series of words: HOPE, CHANGE, etc. that are interchangeable, his image is the template. 

The most common photos of him (as in the two above, and below) usually shoot him slightly or sharply from below, creating a diagonal. This is a classic means of literally elevating someone and making them look superior and powerful. You can see it in photos of JFK  or of Mussolini.

The other, obvious way, is to place the politician in front of a symbol of the Government, below, Obama looking gorgeous in front of the Capitol. As the Campaign progresses, he is more and more in front of flags - one big one, or many. This is a tactic beloved by Bush and the GOP in general. Obama had to start wearing a US flag lapel pin after being criticized for not doing so. (Mind you, I believe that it is his elegance that prevented him from doing so earlier, not his lack of patriotism.)

A common pose he uses in his speeches is the commanding finger pointing out at the audience as in: let's do this, or I command you to do this.

Above is the low-fi version of this pre-big screen digital media iconography. Here's JFK in front of a flag, shot from below.

I was startled to see a pop-up ad on Facebook advertising the tote bag below (I may just have to buy one) since the sunburst  behind the head motif is clearly taken from Cultural Revolution Era Mao iconography. Obviously, this was not produced by his campaign. 

But I think it is telling. Obama's beautiful face lends itself to iconic cult of personality type propaganda. His official logo is just ripe for analysis. It is a globe enclosing an American flag landscape - the sun is blue and white -abstracted stars, and the stripes are the land, red and white suggesting the bountiful land of the USA. The round sun shape of course parallels the O of his last name. Obama, exotic, Other, and menacing, becomes all-American, natural and wholesome. The bountiful future, the beautiful rainbow, the gleaming sunshine of health, youth and hope, must have triggered the creativity of the entrepreneurial tote bag designer. 

During the Cultural Revolution, an image of youthful reform, change and renewal was promoted by the Maoist leaders. Youthful zealots were persuaded in believing that they were ridding China of any vestiges of Western corruption, capitalism and cultural influence. The Mao cult of personality was taken to extremes, even for a regime as gifted as his was in terms of visual propaganda. They often used the sunburst motif as a backdrop for Mao, to signify this renewal.


Taína said...

thank you for this iconographic analysis of political propaganda, PM.
I find the promotional material of the obama campaign, particularly the posters, very retro. The stenciled face of Obama, his optimistic gaze into the future, the slogans, the simple color scheme, are definitely designed to appeal to children of the 1960s generation, who grew up aware if not surrounded by social/political imagery of the sort found in posters or LP covers of leftist groups. Although well cleaned of any elements that may sanction a taking of the arms to fight oppression, the idealism of Obama's images remind me of some Chicano, Puerto Rican, Nuyorican and Black Panthers silkscreens. BTW, the bursting sun appears as well on various Black Panther images by Emory Douglas (on view now at "That was then... this is now" show at PS1).

On a contrasting (and repelling) note, I think of Pedro Roselló's campaign the first time he ran for office in Puerto Rico. It relied heavily on his looks, as a handsome white, blue-eyed man, the epitome of what Puerto Rican annexionists aspire to be. As we are a country were sex appeal is highly valued, he was often shot in campaign caravans dancing the Macarena, with tight jeans that drew attention to his genitals (enhanced, some say, by one of those protective cups used by baseball players). The strategy worked. He won and we had the worst and most corrupt administration ever for eight years.

Petite Maoiste said...

Briliant, Taina, you are totally right about the posters from the 1960s / 1970s like the iconic Che images.