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  September 4, 2008 Issue                                       

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In praise of star power

Note: The following is not an endorsement, but rather a series of observations, most of which are unflattering to Republicans.

Following Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s return from an unusual and unprecedented trip around the Middle East and Europe in July, Republicans scoffed that the senator’s success — measured by the millions who came to see him speak — was due to his celebrity. They barked that Obama’s popularity was really evidence that he was all words and no action — an actor who was only delivering lines (and to foreigners, too). It was star power. The opposite of Republican nominee John McCain’s patented “Straight Talk.”

McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis said the following in an e-mail reprinted in media coverage last month:  “Barack Obama is the biggest celebrity in the world, comparable to Tom Cruise, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.”

This was to justify a Republican “attack” ad that juxtaposed Obama with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and the message “Is he ready to lead?” (Of course, you won’t see that ad anymore, not after McCain launched The Real World: Alaska with his pick of Sarah Palin last week. Who bears a more striking resemblance to the Spears clan? The Obamas or the Palins?)

But is celebrity really that bad? We hear a lot about the importance of character and experience during presidential campaigns, but what is more important than a president’s ability to give a good speech and inspire? Stars draw crowds and can inspire them. Ever see a group of politicians do a benefit like Live Aid? Me neither.

The short list of great American presidents in this century contains the names of men who are remembered most for their ability to perform: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan (actor!) and Bill Clinton. Their greatest asset was not experience or their gutsy ability to govern. It was the fact that these men could deliver a speech that would influence the public mood and motivate the American people to act or think in a different way. They had star power.

During the last eight years, this country’s star power has been a dim bulb. The evidence is a President with the lowest approval ratings since such a thing was tracked. We have had a President who could not draw an international crowd to hear him speak (protestors don’t count), who had no ability to inspire the public to action. (W. is still an actor, thought. What is the Ivy-educated New Englander’s “aw shucks” Texas twang but an affected, pseudo-populist, contemporary country music guise?)

Last week, the celebrity tag resonated when Obama gave an acceptance speech to more than 75,000 people at a football stadium in Denver — a spectacle that more closely recalled a Super Bowl half-time performance than a political convection. It was a lot of show, but it was the kind of show I can’t imagine featuring John McCain.

The Republicans will likely continue to attack Obama along these lines. On Tuesday night Republican speakers like Fred Thompson (another actor!) and Joe Lieberman assailed Obama’s experience and exalted McCain’s character and “maverick” persona (another act, maybe?). “Eloquence is no substitute for a record,” Lieberman droned.

Perhaps, though, the country has had its fill of mavericks. We don’t need straight talk; we need inspirational language.  Less shoot from the hip and lips. More thought before action. After this last act, a little star power is what we need.   

Pete Mazzaccaro