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Jan 19, 2007 3:54 pm

Obama the Camelot Hero?

The NYT compares the appeal of Obama to John Anderson (1980), Gary Hart (1988) and Ross Perot (1992).

This misses the mark. Those fellows never inspired the kind of ecstatic joy that Obama does.

I think a more apt comparison is with RFK and JFK. Like them, Obama seems to embody the virtues of the Camelot hero. Democrats have not seen his like since the 1960s. Like Richard Burton he has swept America off its feet. Of course, we all hope that in the end he gets the girl and saves his kingdom. We pray that the tale doesn't end in tragedy like JFK's did.

Republicans fall for mythmakers, too. Reagan was their version of Camelot. Like JFK he offered people hope and a promise of a better world.

Scholars distinguish between myths and fairy tales (see Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment). Myths are about super heroes, fairy tales about ordinary mortals. Myths make demands on us, fairy tales put us at ease. Myths almost always end badly, fairy tales always end happily.

Using this framework, JFK was far more a creature of myth than Reagan. JFK demanded sacrifices, Reagan promised a free lunch. If ever there was a fairy tale ending to a presidency it was Reagan's. Within three years of his exit the dragon he had attacked fell to the ground and expired.

One other difference between JFK and Reagan. JFK always seemed an extraordinary figure. He was wealthy beyond the comprehension of most Americans and came from an unreachable rung on the social ladder. Reagan, by contrast, was all-heartland, despite his Hollywood patina. He was the ordinary man tapped for extraordinary tasks. Pure fairy tale.

What kind of hero is Obama? I don't think we can know for sure quite yet, though he seems very JFKish to me. But that he is in the heroic mold can't be doubted.

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether what we need is a hero or a president. Sometimes presidents can be heroes. But rarely. Me. I'd settle for a president who shares my basic outlook and is competent at the job. I'll leave the hero stuff to Friday nights at the cinema.

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