According to North Korean propaganda, the late Kim Jong Il was present at the creation—of the hamburger. The story goes that Kim himself invented both the classic “double bread with meat” combination and the factory-style mass-production system that provided nutritious Kimburgers to university students across the (actually starving) country. But that’s nothing compared to what happened at Kim’s birth, when winter skipped immediately to spring and the sky burst open with both starlight and rainbows.
Americans find Kim mythology endlessly funny for two reasons: first, it’s outlandish; second, it’s desperate. In the United States, allegiance to elected leaders isn’t obtained with fairytales, historical embellishment, and mandatory celebration. It’s earned with responsiveness to popular sentiment, sound leadership, and policy results. Gimmick-laden personality cults are for self-appointed paranoiacs who can’t deliver the goods.
Which is probably what Americans are thinking about since Seth’s discovery yesterday that Barack Obama has inserted his name into White House presidential biographies starting with Calvin Coolidge’s.
While this kind of thing is new for American heads of state, it’s old hat for this one. It started before he ran for office. Exhibit A in the myth-making project is Dreams from My Father, a 1995 text on the genesis of the character who became president. Now revealed as a patchwork of “composite” people and events, Dreams can be seen properly as a life in parables. There is the Parable of the American in the Developing World, the Parable of the Mixed Race Student Dating the White Student, and so on. It’s not what did or did not actually happen, it’s what we take away from these stories that counts. Dreams literalists are a dwindling lot.
Today, Obama mythology is piped into our lives through various mediums: pre-taped interviews, late-night talk-show skits, emails, video addresses, documentaries, and more—anything but the democratic give-and-take of a press conference, the modern White House staple that Obama has done away with. Like someone passively-aggressively rebelling against his boss, the president kept showing up for these appearances later and later until they just ceased to occur. He was done answering to others.
Self-mythology requires one-way messaging. And the message is, creepily, everywhere. Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the administration now requires health insurance companies to “tell customers who get a premium rebate this summer that the check is the result of the Obama administration’s health care law.” As James Taranto noted, “to use the federal regulatory apparatus to commandeer private companies for campaign ads is outrageous.” Well, there’s no chance of it coming up at a press conference, is there?
Kim made sure to be celebrated with his own holidays but Obama just co-opted ours. On Sunday, we got a double whammy. An Obama campaign webpage asked us to “Wish Michelle [Obama] a happy Mother’s Day” by “join[ing] Barack and sign[ing] her card.” And If we choose not to treat the first lady as we do our mothers, an unsolicited White House email enabled us to send our own mothers a card—promoting ObamaCare. “Happy Mother’s Day From The Affordable Care Act,” it read, “Being a mom isn’t a pre-existing condition. It’s a joy!”
While that wasn’t intended as a joke, it’s hard not to laugh. Similarly, the presidential biography tampering became the immediate target of biting humor. A cascade of Twitter one-liners savaged the debacle throughout the day yesterday. Like the cult of Kim, to Americans these efforts are outlandish and desperate. We laugh at them the way we laugh when Sacha Baron Cohen lampoons self-aggrandizing autocracy. They represent a wholly foreign understanding of what it means to be a good elected official. But they also represent a dearth of genuine achievement and therefore a tragicomic desperation. If Obama really believes that seeding cards and biographies with his name is the best way to get Americans on board with his presidency he’s more of a historic first than any of us knew.