Saturday, October 21, 2006

Obama’s Project Runway


So the question before us is, should Barack Obama stop lounging around in fashion magazines and do some honest work, like running for president?

How will we ever persuade him to give up his modeling gigs in Men’s Vogue, Marie Claire, Vanity Fair and Washington Life? How can we lure the lanky young senator from Illinois out of the glossy celebrity pages and back to gritty substance, away from Annie Leibovitz’s camera and back to Abraham Lincoln’s tradition? He may not want to come back, now that he has mastered that J.F.K. casual glamour pose in shirt sleeves and tie, suit jacket slung over his shoulder, elegant wife and pretty children accessorizing.

The Washington Post’s fashion reporter, Robin Givhan, analyzed the Men’s Vogue spread, with its “touch football” aura: “Obama is pictured in warm light or soft focus. He is pondering, nurturing, working. But never glad-handing, pontificating or fund-raising. The pictures celebrate the idea of Obama rather than the reality of politics.”

Why should the 45-year-old senator tackle reality in a city that has forsworn it altogether? And why not join the catwalk of Democratic hotties? The Washington Post reported that the Democrats were “fielding an uncommonly high number of uncommonly good-looking candidates.” Young and cute, as the party campaign honcho Rahm Emanuel wryly told me, could be a refreshing change from “Hastert, Rumsfeld and Cheney, who look like the retirees from ‘Goodfellas.’ ”

Mr. Obama’s main accomplishment so far is sending a chill through Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ dreaded eventuality. It must certainly be more fun cavorting on a cover with Eva Longoria than caucusing in the Capitol with Harry Reid. Working on legislation can be so tedious, compared with a 13-city book tour in which you are feted as the liberal hunk of the 21st century, generating buzz about your future instead of the country’s.

Mr. Obama, who fears being seen as fluffy and who has been known to mock pretty boys in his party, never seems to take off his makeup these days, as he pads from one soft perch to the next, from Oprah to Meredith to Larry. The first black president of the Harvard Law Review is spending too much time in green rooms.

He also logs a lot of time at the gym. (You never know when Anna Wintour will call.) It is the only thing this intellectually nimble, preternaturally articulate smarty-pants has in common with W.

“Politics sometimes blends in with celebrity,” he told Oprah this week. “And it gobbles you up because the tendency is for people to want to see you perform and say what they want to hear, as opposed to you trying to stay in touch with, you know, that deepest part of you, that kernel of truth inside.” Doesn’t he see that when you express this skepticism on Oprah it is not skepticism at all?

Haven’t we seen this tease before? Before the 1996 campaign, Colin Powell scared the bejesus out of Hillary’s husband by showing a fair amount of leg on his book tour. He sold 2.6 million books and was hugely popular, but caution crimped him. He never ran for president, and when he went to the State Department he never stood up to the forces of darkness.

Senator Obama’s caution, too, may cause him to miss the moment. Like Alma Powell, Michelle Obama is afraid for her husband to run.

After 16 years of polarizing presidents driving them crazy, Americans will be yearning for someone as soothing as Obama. (“No one is exempt,” he writes in one of many platitudes in his new book, “from the call to find common ground.”) He is so hot now that tickets to his political events are being sought, at scalpers’ prices, on Craig’s List.

His appeal combines the political ability — alien to the Bush administration — to see something from your opponent’s point of view with the cool detachment of a J.F.K. He’s intriguingly imperfect: His ears stick out, he smokes, and he’s written about wrestling with pot, booze and “maybe a little blow” as a young man.

He has been told by Democratic leaders to think about whether he really wants to be president, or whether he’s just getting swept away by people who want him to do it. (That’s a distinction that entitled and unqualified Republican WASPs like W. and Dan Quayle never bother to make, simply learning — or not learning — on the job.)

Does Barack Obama want to be a celebrity or a man of history — or is there no longer any difference?