In defence of the Obama-in-Ottawa throng

The enthusiasts who fill out the crowds are often responding, not to shallow celebrity, but to the deeper values they associate with their hero of the moment

To scoff at the outpouring of adulation that greeted Barack Obama on Parliament Hill sounds sophisticated. All those people who were so thrilled just to be waved at from behind a sheet of Plexiglas—giddy hero-worshippers. The teenagers who screamed at a glimpse of the President during his surprise appearance at the market—no better than fans of the latest pop star.

Dismiss them all as silly, and you can congratulate yourself, I guess, for being above all that. But you pay a price for your detachment, and it’s too steep for me. For the right visitor, I let a little part of me inwardly cheer along, even as I keep my head down and scribble, as is my habit, in my notebook.

I’ve covered many visits by foreign leaders and dignitaries, and I’ve come to believe that the enthusiasts who fill out the crowds are often responding, not to shallow celebrity, but to the deeper values they associate with their hero of the moment. Ideas and goals are abstract; people yearn to identify them with a remarkable individual.

One evening a few years back I stood on a rope line when Nelson Mandela was leaving a state dinner, across the Ottawa River from Parliament at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Mandela was supposed to walk straight to his waiting car, but he recognized a journalist, who had formerly worked in South Africa, and broke his stride to say hello. He shook a few hands, and dispensed his smile—right there, right then, not on TV or in a photograph.

We reacted the way crowds, small and large, always react to him: we allowed ourselves to be moved because his story is so moving, his demeanor so convincing. It’s not too much to say that he is a walking emblem of freedom and dignity. You won’t persuade me that responding emotionally to his smile or the clasp of his hand is the same as swooning at a wink from a movie star on the red carpet.

When Vaclav Havel visited Ottawa to address Parliament, many journalists I know—including more than a few for whom a jaded stance is their natural posture—were thrilled just to know he was in town. He is not quite a Mandela; Havel’s style is less heroic and more sardonic. Yet the two men share stature for having survived hard times for those who love liberty, and come out the other end talking with undiminished energy about what is possible, and possible through democratic means. Aloof observers of our game of democracy are supposed to keep their cool even in the presence of such figures, I suppose. I’d rather let a little warmth flow through me, thanks anyway.

I mention Havel and Mandela because I was here for their Ottawa visits. But Churchill in 1941, or Kennedy in 1961—or choose another figure from history whom you happen to admire—also stirred those who came to see them in their day. Obama is not yet in their league, of course, and very likely never will be. Yet if we weren’t ashamed to allow ourselves to shed a tear, or smile like idiots, or fix on a little gesture or phrase, for the great men of the past, how can we deny the same human response to those who feel the same way about Obama today?

They love him because as a black man in the White House he represents a triumph of progress. They admire him because he carries himself with a poise that invests mass politics with a seriousness it too often lacks. They fall for his oratory. They hope he can solve big problems. And, yes, they like his smile and the cut of this suits (so sue them).

Often enough crowds turn out for politicians who don’t deserved the cheers. It’s wise to be on guard against demagogues and worse. That’s not enough reason, though, to disparage the energy generated by close proximity to a leader who promises better.

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