This conversation is from the Charlie Rose show broadcast on Wednesday, November 5, 2008. One of the topics being discussed is Barack Obama’s slightly creepy “cult of personality”.
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Here is the part of the conversation that struck me as disturbing:
MEACHAM: I was very struck watching the stagecraft — and this comes out again and again in the project — in Grant Park [Chicago], he walks out with the family, and then they go away. Biden’s back, you know, locked in the bar or something, you know —
MEACHAM: They don’t let him out. And have you ever seen a victory speech where there was no one else on stage? No adoring wife, no cute kid — he is the message.
THOMAS: There is a slightly creepy cult of personality about all of this. I mean, he is such an admirable —
ROSE: ‘Slightly creepy cult of personality’?
ROSE: What’s ‘slightly creepy’ about it?
THOMAS: It just makes me a little uneasy that he’s so singular. He’s clearly managing his own spectacle. He knows how to do it. He’s a — I think, a deeply manipulative guy — you know, this could be a useful thing in a leader —
ROSE: How so is he ‘deeply manipulative’?
THOMAS: I think he’s always in control, you know — he controls events, events don’t control him. He’s a pretty calm guy. He seem to be able to get people to do pretty much what he wants.
I think the key moment, to answer your question — when did he have this inking. I think it’s when he was running for — to be the president of the Harvard Law Review. He would spend a lot of time searching for himself, and deciding that he was a black man — and he goes to Harvard and there’s this politically-correct frought time, and there are conservatives and there are liberals. He manages to persuade all of them that he’s on their side….And he realizes that people want to help him. They want to help him. It makes people feel good to help — And this is an important insight for him. Oh my gosh, I have this gift. I have this knack. People are going to want to help — want to help me. I’ll let them help me, all the way to the White House. I’ll bet you that was the first time. That’s when he starts to write his memoir, and the memoir stops before he gets to Harvard….He leaves out the critical chapter, because I think the critical moment then is when he realizes he has got this gift, and he is going to ride it as far as he possibly can.
Meacham then “slightly disagreed” with his colleague’s “slightly creepy” assessment, and compared Obama to FDR and Reagan. Rose replied to this by gushing over the president-elect’s charisma and ability to speak. The two Newsweek editors wholeheartedly agreed.
MEACHAM: He writes in ‘Audacity of Hope’ — and I think every presidential candidate should have to write memoirs because they are inadvertently revealing often, but he’s very explicit. He understands the character of Obama in this drama he’s constructed. It’s fascinating. He says, ‘I am a screen on which people project their visions, their hopes,’ and he could be a redemptive figure as long as race was implicit and not explicit. As long as he was as, you know, smart as he could be, work as hard as he could — as Evan says, create a FDR-like circle around him with everyone trying to help him, he could be the center of attention, the star of this, and that’s, I think — and this is — I slightly disagree. I don’t think it’s creepy. I think it’s — I think it’s like Reagan. I think it’s like great charismatic leaders who project brilliantly, but who are, in fact, in control — very much in control behind the scenes.
ROSE: Watching him last night — that speech when he’s out there alone, and watching him in Denver, same thing — when he’s making a speech. He — he knows the power of his ability to speak, and there is at the end, when he finishes it — you know, with certain speakers, there’s a kind — they’re overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the moment.
MEACHAM: Right, right.
ROSE: You know? And that they’re walking from — and his is a much more — he finishes, and he sort of — it’s almost like he then ascends to look at the circumstance —
MEACHAM: He watches us watching him.
ROSE: Exactly. He does —
MEACHAM: It’s amazing.
ROSE: It is amazing.
MEACHAM: And, you know, you read about Bobby — Bobby Kennedy fed off it, right?
THOMAS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it was a direct elemental contact.
ROSE: And so does — so does Bill Clinton.
THOMAS: He is more closer to Jack [Kennedy]. Jack was the one who could stand back and watch himself being watched.