Oct 30, 2008 at 3:16 pm
It was hard not getting a little teary-eyed watching the Barack Obama infomercial Wednesday night. Who could not be touched by the amber waves of grain, and all those seemingly sincere testimonies to the character of the man who wants to lead us, and the tales of people struggling as a result of eight years of disastrous Republican policy?

But even as emotions started to swell over the hard-luck stories of working-class Americans who are pinning their hopes on Obama, and the epic story of the candidate’s personal journey — especially the heart-breaking tale of his mother poring over insurance forms as she died of cancer while still in her 50s — I found myself bristling at the manipulation being perpetrated by a candidate I desperately want to win.

In one sense, I’m glad the Democrat in this race is doing a better job of constructing a compelling narrative than his GOP counterpart. Whatever it takes to achieve victory, right? Winning hearts as well as minds is a fundamental part of politics. That’s simply a fact of life. And there is real value to it.

On the other hand, any attempt to elevate style over substance — an art taken to new levels by Ronald Reagan — is, I think, a dangerous thing for a democracy. The mantra for Reagan and his handlers was that Ronnie could pursue whatever harmful policies he wanted as long as the associated images conveyed a feel-good message, no matter how discordant those images were with reality.

Put bluntly, it is a kind of con job, and we are the marks.

Maybe it has always been that emotions rule the day, and that image mattered more than actual policy. As one of my co-workers pointed out as we debated this issue, would Franklin Roosevelt been able to achieve what he did had the public been made aware of the effects of his polio? Should it have mattered that the man whose policies helped save this country during one of its darkest moments concealed the fact that he was really wheelchair-bound? Logically, no. But in reality, Roosevelt knew that the truth of his condition had to be hidden for him to hold power.

Or, consider the debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon back in 1960. Those who listened on radio thought Nixon had won, while those who watched on television, with the handsome young Kennedy juxtaposed with a sweaty-browed, beady-eyed Nixon, thought Kennedy had actually come out on top. As we know now, Nixon’s unease was a telltale sign into the man’s truly venal character.

Part of the intrinsic qualities of leadership is the ability to inspire others.

There is, too, what can be considered an emotional intelligence. I’ve known people in my life who understood things intuitively, and evaluated people and situations using gut instincts better than I did trying to use logic. In other words, this is all complicated stuff with none of it clearly marked in ways that are black and white.

But a part of me has never been able to shake a story I heard many years ago, told by a Jewish man who lived in Nazi Germany. He described attending a massive Hitler rally, and experiencing the phenomenon of mass psychology. Even though he was listening to the words of a psychotic leader who wanted to exterminate him simply because of his ethnicity, and even though he clearly understood that intellectually, as the words sieg heil thundered, he found his arm rising almost involuntarily in salute.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m in no way comparing Obama’s infomercial to a Nazi rally. That would be insane. And I’m hoping that when new polls are released in coming days, the Democrat’s lead in this race will have expanded. But as a consumer, I think that when it comes down to deciding what to buy, it is not the package that counts, but what is inside.

At some level I can’t quite articulate, I think there is a difference between reasoned persuasion and manipulation that relies on playing with our emotions. And, whether the end goal is considered bad or good, it is never a good idea to succumb mindlessly to that kind of manipulation. It’s important to see it for what it is, and then see through it, to determine what the end results will be.

Although it wasn’t a part of the half-hour broadcast, former President Bill Clinton spoke at a later Florida rally. He talked about the redistribution of wealth that’s been going on these past eight years, with the poor and middle class losing ground while the richest 10 percent profited wildly. Obama’s tax plan is aimed at helping the masses, not the already privileged. And his health-care policy is “light years” ahead of McCain’s.

Then there’s Obama’s energy plan, which wants to put money into promoting conservation, the surest way to cut dependence on foreign oil, promoting job growth and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That and a significant investment in alternative energy could go a long way toward salvaging the wreck that is our current economy.

And one candidate has promised to extricate us from the costly morass that is Iraq, while the other has pledged to keep us there for 100 years if need be.

So there are plenty of rational reasons to get out and vote for Obama.

I guess what I’m urging is caution. This time around, it looks like it is the guy on the left who’s been most successful in getting us all teary-eyed and hopeful. But four years from now, there is a good chance that Karl Rove or one of his acolytes will have learned from Obama’s (apparent) success, and they will try to improve on it, looking to sway us not with what’s inside their nasty package but with the wrapping that attempts to conceal it.

Remember the seeming appeal of George W. Bush, the resolute Texas cowboy that we’d all much prefer having a beer with than the wooden and wonkish Al Gore? Look what that has got us. Or the below-the-belt attacks of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who somehow convinced enough people that a decorated veteran who volunteered for combat was somehow worthy of contempt while his opponent, who used family privilege to avoid going to war, was really the one deserving to be our commander in chief.

Strong emotions have a way of shutting down our critical faculties, and clever campaigns are capable of greatly distorting reality. The more we keep that in mind, and the more we pay attention to the substance of what’s being said instead of falling prey to the manufactured images that have become so prolific a part of our politics, the better off all of us will be. —Curt Guyette