Are you an Obama supporter who feels a certain amount of unease with your candidate’s occasional bouts of schlockiness? This is not to say you don’t appreciate his speaking skills. You cheered at the Philadelphia race speech, but had to dredge up the patience to get through some of his others. At times, Obama can be just a little bit corny, doggone it! (OK, not that corny.) Meanwhile, in interviews, he is often hesitant (or maybe too smart for his own good), but can also be unexpectedly witty and nuanced. And sometimes he leaves you feeling smarter for having watched him.
Where as Gore and Kerry were intelligent men who (severely) lacked some ethereal oomph, Obama comes across as not only more intellectual, but he is also firmly in possession of that oomph, a kind of worldly energy, more like Bill Clinton, but a lot less slick. So what’s with all the fluff that leaves you a little uneasy? (Clinton pushed the inspirational fluff, too, a place called Hope, and so on, but nothing like Obama.) For some reason, people tend to ask themselves, after a cringe, “Can he really believe that?” line about (insert cheesiness here). (Because although I might vote for him, send him money, and drown in despair if he loses, I am utterly unmoved by sentiment ________.)
As I pondered this Obama conundrum and its implications, I started looking for historical comparisons, and the one I came up with was a little bit shocking: I thought of the only other figure in recent memory whose message was so inspirational, mind was so acute, personality was so larger than life and drew such record-breaking crowds: Pope John Paul II. I know this plays a little too nicely into the the Obama-as-messiah narrative, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a skill set that is rare among public figures.
Strange as it may seem at first, a host of similarities present themselves. Both accomplished important firsts and for some insiders, these firsts carried great risks. Unlikely, unusual and dynamic, their uncanny combinations of different “brows” allowed them to navigate difficult waters. John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in some 400 years, and he was Polish. Obama is the first African-American presidential nominee of a major party and will hopefully be the first African-American president of the United States. When each man was born, the prospect of his achieving what he achieved was slim to none. “Is the pope Polish?” was a joke that poked fun at the long odds of such a development. I don’t have to repeat jokes about the odds of a black man being president.
Early on, both Obama and John Paul II learned the rigorous thinking skills necessary to deal with nearly unfathomable arcana at the highest level. (Aside from hitting the books, they both excelled at sports, basketball and skiing, respectively, into middle age.) Like Obama, by all counts a magnificent constitutional law professor, John Paul II was an academic mandarin. He was an extremely sophisticated phenomenologist, a philosopher of the utmost seriousness. But neither was willing to spend his entire life (intellectual and otherwise) in the rarified precincts of the difficult subjects they’d mastered.
Like Obama, John Paul II had a certain amount of literary ambition. (Aside from hitting the books, both displayed grace under pressure, benevolence toward detractors and great mental stamina.) Obama, who referenced Jorge Luis Borges in a 2006 interview with Men’s Vogue, is always respectful of literature and literature’s role in education. He is a very good prose stylist, capable of crafting elegant memoirs. John Paul II was an accomplished and well-respected playwright. He was also a fine prose stylist. In fact, one of his most successful books was Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1995), a title Obama must certainly dig. And public speaking—to vast audiences, the size of which neither popes nor presidential candidates were traditionally expected to address—became perhaps what both are best known for.
Sure, you may say, other writers were effective public speakers as well, but Obama and John Paul II do and did not peddle resentment, fear, anger or hate. The rousing political or semi-political speech to a zillion people, so tainted by its fascist associations during and before World War II, was probably redeemed by Martin Luther King Jr., who may be a common denominator between Obama and Pope John Paul II.
Obama could have looked at John Paul II, at any point from say, 1978-2005 and thought: Here is a man, a writer like me, who can connect people—from the most elevated to the most ordinary—on absolutely equal terms. He could have looked at the John Paul II model and wondered if he could do that.
Yes he can.