Commentary 30 Jan 2009 10:26 pm
Here is my print column from Jan. 29, 2009, as published in The Alliance Review.
I haven’t done any research to back this up, but I’ll bet President Barack Obama is the first U.S. leader to be the subject of Topps trading cards.
There he was in my local Wal-Mart, his images wrapped in foil, displayed next to sports heroes and cartoon celebrities. Step aside Kobe and LeBron, move back SpongeBob SquarePants, because the leader of the free world is appearing on 90 collectible cards and 18 stickers, and kids and adults will want to own them all.
Trading cards are only the tip of the Barack merchandising iceberg. You can find his image on T-shirts, slippers and kitschy red, white and blue pennants; in comic books, ice cream flavors (Yes Pecan — get it? Yes We Can!), and tattoo parlors. It’s a veritable feeding frenzy of all things Obama.
In part, this collectible overload — the trading cards are backordered on the Topps Web site — reflects how strongly Americans believe in the 44th president, but in part, it also reflects our innate desire to create heroes and narratives suitable for them. It’s an American pastime far older than the venerable Horatio Alger myth of luck and pluck — a deserving kid rises from obscurity through grit and determination to do Good Things and reap Big Benefits.
Think George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, a cheery piece of apocrypha gift wrapped in a lesson on character building: Father, I cannot tell a lie. Or Lincoln’s humble beginnings in a log cabin, completing his homework assignments on the back of a shovel because paper was scarce.
The problem with George W. Bush is he didn’t have any suitable myths to sustain his story, except the one about whether he really served in the military or had daddy’s money get him out of it. Not exactly the stuff of legend, is it?
Barack certainly fits the mythological mold, and his meteoric rise bears testament not only to his message of hope, but to our desire to believe such a message, convincingly told and sold. We want to like this president, to believe in this president.
The problem with the mythmaking tendency of Americans is that it’s taken an ugly turn in recent years to give our heroes a story arc more in keeping with our jaded modern world. It’s not enough that somebody rises, but he or she must also fall. And the higher the heights to which this penitent of the public consciousness climbs, the further he plunges.
But this, too, is an old story. Think Macbeth, Hamlet and Doctor Faustus. Today, we see the tragic nature of celebrity in the tarnished athlete of the week, the epidemic of broken politicians, and sordid celebrities like Tom Cruise (Scientology freak), Mel Gibson (anti-Semitic freak), Michael Jackson and Brittany Spears (freaky freaks).
The irony of George W. Bush is that he thought he was living a history play, but was really starring in a tragedy. As he slinks back to Texas with the lowest public opinion rating of any president, the poor guy just can’t get a break no matter how you judge his legacy.
When supporters note that after the tragedy of 9/11, no further terrorist attacks occurred on domestic soil during Bush’s watch, pundits are quick to use this out as evidence that his war on terrorism and curtailing of civil liberties were too heavy-handed, not that his policies prevented further attacks. When supporters crow that he presided over 52 recession-free months, critics point to the financial devastation of the last year and the cracking of the nation’s financial bedrock.
We are likely to see Bush’s legacy rise in the coming years, if only because it can’t really fall much further.
Meanwhile, Barack’s stock has soared so high on the basis of words only, that his actions — no matter how stellar — are bound to bring him back to earth, hopefully gently and not like Icarus, waxy wings aflame. Because Americans, whether we know it or not, are waiting for the next chapter in the familiar narrative — the Barack backlash, if you will — that will make the story complete.
In the meantime, however, the nation is awash in positive feelings for 44, and why not? It isn’t every day that a U.S. president merits his own trading card set, let alone one that becomes a bestseller.
And I cannot tell a lie — I want to collect all 90 myself.