American Icon

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Obama calendar.jpegBarack Obama’s passage to the presidency has been marked by unprecedented graphics virtuosity, but that was not what was on display in the Carnival of Obama that took place in Washington over the last few days. In front of Union Station and along many other downtown thoroughfares, a vast array of peddlers hawked their wares–buttons and caps, bookmarks and calendars, T-shirts and hoodies, and portraits of the president and the new First Family, most done up in a style more reminiscent of Elvis memorabilia than the elegant Obama “O.”
Okay, I saw nothing on black velvet nor anything like my favorite bit of Evisiana: a vial of liquid purporting to be some of the King’s sweat, with the legend, “Let His Perspiration Be an Inspiration.” Nevertheless, not only is the iconography of Obama well underway, but from the numbers of people buying, there was every indication that Americans–black Americans especially–were making their collections of Obamiana and constructing their shrines. Students of popular culture take note.
The two most important previous American presidential cults are Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s. As Christianity has taught us, nothing drives a cult more powerfully than martyrdom, but Kennedy’s status as the first Catholic president would doubtless have earned him a measure of veneration had he served out his time in office. In Obama’s case, the symbolic significance of being the first African-American chief executive more than suffices. It was not long ago that the McCain campaign made fun of Obama as the “world’s biggest celebrity.” They weren’t even close.