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The Passion Of The Body Politic

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In a brilliantly formed but nonetheless confused piece published in the New York Times on Feb. 8, conservative columnist David Brooks slams what others have referred to as the "cult of personality" surrounding Democratic frontrunner Barack Obama.

Brooks isn't so kind, however.

"Have you noticed that he's actually carried into his rallies by a flock of cherubs while the heavens open up with the Hallelujah Chorus?" he asks, in a tone easily mistaken for a jealous lover resigned to sarcasm in the face of sudden, broken-hearted inadequacy.

He takes it a step further, though, ridiculing Obama the "messiah," whose supporters will soon be "selling flowers at airports and arranging mass weddings."

Gee, I can't imagine the Republican party ever becoming similarly swept up in an emotionally satisfying, rationally illogical figurehead...

A great communicator, perhaps?

Brooks is justified in his conclusion that there is something fundamentally creepy in a popular YouTube video that features a "bunch of celebrities like Scarlett Johansson and the guy from the Black Eyed Peas...singing the words to an Obama speech in escalating states of righteousness and ecstasy."

Freaky, yes.

But, really, Mr. Brooks, please don't imply that conservatives are somehow innocent of the charges you've leveled against Obama and his supporters.

We -- Democrats, Republicans and even Independents (hello, Ross Perot) -- are equally guilty in propagating the Passion of the Body Politic. If we are to be excused, it must be by reason of insanity, for I can honestly state that I spent an entire semester in Washington, D.C. living in close proximity to a young man who kept a 5×7 portrait of Ronald Reagan above his doorway.

When sabotaged, there were tears.

So, Mr. Brooks, let's dismiss this false implication that somehow Barack Obama and the enthusiasm surrounding him offer something that "ought to creep out normal working-class voters," as you wrote in your column. Because let's face it: Jesus Christ, Chairman Mao and Ronald Reagan aren't exactly in the same book club, and yet we hang them all above our doorways.

At recent campaign events, Senator Obama has drawn capacity-crowds and lines of thousands waiting to get inside. When he takes the stage, some scream "I love you," while others are moved to tears. Certainly, the candidate enjoys a surge of momentum unseen in individual American politics in recent history. Yet there is a long tradition of cultural iconology and, indeed, idolatry in our political system. For Democrats that tradition includes FDR, JFK and RFK, and to a certain extent, former President Bill Clinton. Even Al Gore has undergone a radical (though continually humorless) transformation from political cave dweller to something of an American folk legend.

Republicans, too, have their own Obamas, although the words "conservative" and "party" aren't exactly complementary. Democrats may have their Howard Dean moments, it's true, but at least they're confident on stage without a trophy wife.

All jokes aside, what is it, exactly, that's wrong with American getting excited about their political leaders? Have we become so cynical, so complacent, so apathetic that we cannot hope for something better?

The fact is, we've become so accustomed to inept leadership in government, so used to promises undelivered, so comfortable in political disengagement that we are fearful of powerful change.

"If you're afraid of the future, then get out of the way, stand aside," said Senator Obama at a recent rally. "The people of this country are ready to move again."

Actually, that's false. It wasn't Barack Obama who said that. It was Ronald Reagan, at the Nevada Republican Party Rally in Reno, 1982.

Cross-posted on The Saint.