Saturday, January 17, 2009
“Superman Comes to the Supermarket, Part II:” The Obama Remake
The NY Times Magazine’s Matt Bai has written a thought-provoking essay comparing the advent of the mythical John F. Kennedy to the presidency to the mythical Barack Obama’s glide into that same office. Citing how Norman Mailer demythologized Kennedy, Bai leads us to wonder how Obama will fare when he inevitably emerges as a mere mortal.
I’ve long been uncomfortable with the whole Camelot scene, and it lost its magic for me completely when Ted Kennedy presumed to pass the torch to Obama. The PE has been on the rock star track ever since, and one can only wonder, not whether, but when reality will set in.
Bai’s opening paragraphs should give any sensible person pause:
“Weeks before the election of 1960, Norman Mailer, already an accomplished novelist, sat down to write his first major work of political journalism, an essay for Esquire in which he argued that only John F. Kennedy could save America. In an unruly, haunting and somewhat self-indulgent piece running nearly 14,000 words, Mailer submitted that a mechanized America, with its bland and automated politics, was on the verge of stamping out individuality and randomness and artistic spirit; the only kind of leader who could rescue it, who could sweep in an era of what Mailer called “existential” politics, was a “hipster” hero — someone who welcomed risk and adventure, someone who sought out new experience, both for himself and for the country. In Kennedy, Mailer saw a man of “not quite describable intensity, a suggestion of dry pent heat perhaps,” with “the eyes of a mountaineer” and a penchant for risking his life.
‘“As it happened, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” as Mailer’s article was titled, had more of an impact on magazine journalism than it did on the politics of the era. With a few clicks — O.K., more than a few — on his electric typewriter, Mailer essentially created a new genre for a generation of would-be literary philosophers covering politics (most of whom, sadly, lacked for anything approaching Mailer’s gift for social commentary). By 1963, Mailer and other idealists were crushed to discover that Kennedy was in fact a fairly conventional and pragmatic politician, more Harvard Yard than Fortress of Solitude. In an introduction to a collection of his essays and letters to Kennedy titled “The Presidential Papers,” published shortly before Kennedy’s death, Mailer vented his bitterness at the general lack of hipsterism in the White House. Kennedy had “the face of a potential hero,” he wrote, “but he embodies nothing, he personifies nothing, he is power, rather a quizzical power, without light or principle.” In a remarkable postscript to his original Esquire essay, Mailer repudiated the article as “propaganda” and said he felt like a traitor for having written it."'
Bai concludes with these words:
"“The edge of the mystery” is how Norman Mailer described John Kennedy in 1960, and it may be an apt way to look at Obama too, as he rides up Pennsylvania Avenue obscured by a pane of bulletproof glass. The unfolding years will reveal much more about the man we have elected, and perhaps even something of ourselves."'
To read the article in its entirety – it’s worth it – go here.