Barack Obama has brought glamour back to American politics—not the faux glamour-by-association of campaigning with movie stars or sailing with the Kennedys, but the real thing. The candidate himself is glamorous. Audiences project onto him the personal qualities and political positions they want in a president. They look at Obama and see their hopes and dreams.
Glamour is more than beauty or stage presence. You can’t generate it just by having a wife who dresses like Jackie Kennedy. Glamour is a beautiful illusion—the word glamour originally meant a literal magic spell—that promises to transcend ordinary life and make the ideal real. It depends on a special combination of mystery and grace. Too much information breaks the spell. So does obvious effort. That’s why glamour is so rare in contemporary politics. In post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America, skeptical voters demand full disclosure of everything from candidates’ finances to their medical records, and spin-savvy accounts of backstage machinations dominate political coverage.
Obama’s glamour gives him a powerful political advantage. But it also poses special problems for the candidate and, if he succeeds, for the country.
Like John Kennedy in 1960, Obama combines youth, vigor, and good looks with the promise of political change. Like Kennedy, he grew up in unusual circumstances that distance him from ordinary American life. But while it was Kennedy’s wealth that set him apart, Obama’s mystery stems from an upbringing and ethnicity that defy conventional categories. He is glamorous because he is different, and his differences mirror his audience’s aspirations for the country.