Claire Messud Joins Obama on the Campaign Trail

Seven months ago, as he drove me the lengthy route from Vero Beach to the airport in West Miami Beach: past abandoned citrus groves and overgrown, half-built housing developments, past billboards flogging vacation homes at a third or a quarter of their original prices—my driver, a heavyset white Vietnam vet originally from Buffalo, N.Y., with back trouble, two impressively successful grown sons and an adolescent stepdaughter, explained why he hoped Barack Obama would be the Democratic candidate, and why he would vote for the man if he were: "I don't care if he's black, white, orange or any other color," he said. "He's got two eyes, a nose and a mouth like anybody else. He's smart. He talks well. And the guy is classy. I want to be a part of that."

Classy, cool, hip, glamorous, even sexy—all these words have been used to describe the presumptive Democratic nominee. He has excited the young, the disenfranchised, the traditionally cynical and apathetic: even I, for the first time in my life, had given money to a campaign—his. Outside Obama events you can buy T shirts bearing his likeness, strangely cartooned, looking vaguely like Malcolm X or Che Guevara memorabilia; you can pick up buttons with slogans like HOT CHICKS DIG OBAMA. I saw a young girl in rural Missouri, upon shaking his hand, scream and hop up and down as if he were John, Paul, George or Ringo: she then called up friends on her cell phone, gazing at her own hand as if it were a mystical relic. He's repeatedly been compared to JFK, to George Clooney, to Sidney Poitier and, sarcastically, by his opponent, to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears; he's been both hailed and condemned as a celebrity. We've opened every magazine and newspaper to find him profiled, analyzed, taxonomized again, and again, and again, to the point where the American people are tired of the hype. We've been apprised of the likes and dislikes of his wife, and of the routines of his children. He has stolen—some would say, hogged—the limelight for months.

And yet we're still not satiated. Or perhaps, more accurately, we're not satisfied: for all we've seen, and read, and been told, both by and about him, there are some things we're still trying to figure out.

When I told people I'd be following the Obama campaign for a week, their envy was palpable, their curiosity intense—this in spite of, or perhaps because of, all the hype. Even my friend whose disappointment over Hillary is such that she has said she will not vote at all—even she got excited. McCain's campaign can mock Obama's celebrity—can make it, indeed, their principal complaint—precisely because he has become a celebrity, in a way simply impossible for John McCain.

But the truth of the matter is that seen up close, the attraction of Barack Obama as a candidate has less to do with the cut of his suits or the fact that he's championed by hip rock singers than with an almost geeky earnestness, a decency and sobriety that he projects when speaking to a crowd. A large part of his mystique lies in his insistence on his message, and on the complexity of that message; and in his old-fashioned, almost stern will to cut the flim-flam and, in a way so retro it's almost novel, to actually address the issues. When I got home, friends rang and just said "So?" The first unspoken question was "Did you meet him?" and the second, "What was he like?" To which I said, "Well, it was like this …"

It was far, let me tell you, from a week of unmitigated glamour. First of all, joining up with the Obama campaign was rather like finding an unannounced rave party in the dead of night without a map. On the morning of the day on which I was supposed to hook up with them, I knew only at what hotel in Washington, D.C., they'd been the night before. Nobody from the campaign had responded to my volley of e-mails. I'd managed, almost by chance, to register to join the traveling press for the week; but in order to meet them, I had to find them. Eventually, after badgering a dozen people, I was given a cell-phone number. I called, and Katie Lillie—a charming, efficient and dedicated staffer known as a "wrangler," who deals with the press—revealed the secrets, such as they were, of joining the group.

I bestirred myself, at her instruction, to the "file room" down a corridor off the vast lobby of the Washington, D.C., Omni Shoreham Hotel. The room, mid afternoon, had a morguelike hush, as two young men and a young woman tapped away diligently on their laptops hooked up to power strips at the linen-covered tables, jugs of ice water sweating beside them. Over the course of the next two hours, journalists trickled in, bringing with them a summer-camp jollity, warm greetings for comrades not seen for some time, the exchange of near-whispered jokes. By the time we piled on to the bus to the airport, I'd been introduced to at least a few of the crowd. Over the course of my days with them, the press—most of them not yet 30 years old—were unfailingly friendly, helpful, generous, even, to this stranger in their midst.

But what did become clear (on the first bus; in the comfortably arranged back section of the much-discussed newly refitted Obama plane, where drinks and crudités and dip were available from the moment we boarded; in the after-dinner hours in Springfield, Mo., where we were escorted to the Holiday Inn Express and handed a downloaded, photocopied, marked-up local map to find the diners and bars) was the degree to which the press live in their own world.

There are two press contingents: "pool" and "nonpool." Reporters rotate between the two, the former being an exclusive coterie that follows the candidate everywhere he goes. They follow him to the gym at dawn, and sit outside while he lifts weights. They follow him to every meeting, however private, and wait on the doorstep until he's done. On his precious days off, they sit outside his house, and when he emerges—to go for a walk, to visit a friend—they follow him there. They have specific rules about what they may and may not photograph; they do not report on what might constitute his private life, his time with family and friends. The pool, one of them told me, is like a deathwatch: always present just in case something happens. This group, in their minibus, is like a second Secret Service detail or, more grimly, like a flock of vultures: they shadow him at all times. Everyone else is "nonpool." They ride on a big bus with tinted windows (though not as dark as the windows of Obama's bus, behind which nothing can be seen), the upholstery and the scented disinfectant of which change with every new city, but which is otherwise always the same. They are not privy to everything, but attend all public events, rushing busily into the cordoned-off area reserved for traveling press, where the ubiquitous tables with power strips await. Everyone sets up at top speed in readiness for whatever speeches or presentations lie ahead. And as soon as the candidate is done, even before he has finished shaking hands with his admirers, the press retires, en masse, to a private file room, where there are more rows of tables, more power strips and, often, lunch.

In this world, journalists barely look up from their computers and their BlackBerrys. On the bus, at night, their faces are bathed in the blue electric glow of their machinery. They are responsible for absorbing all the breaking news about the candidate, and about his opponent. Google alerts send every article, every blog, every voiced opinion and every official response to their fingertips. The journalists are constantly reading, constantly writing. They rarely amble among the public, notebook in hand. They rarely have time to gawp at the local eccentricities. (Of what interest the Marine recruiting station and the Little Tattoo2 parlor on the edge of the Missouri State University campus in Springfield? Of what interest the exhortations to young athletes in the Glendale High School wrestling gym: FATIGUE IS AN EXCUSE FOR THE WEAK TO GET OUT OF WORK?)

And, crucially, they rarely have a chance to approach the candidate himself. Here is the inglorious truth of my week on the campaign trail: on my first day, it was laughingly promised that I would meet him, as if it were madness even to question so inevitable an event. On my second and third days, there were ever more vague suggestions of a possible encounter. On my fourth day, it was acknowledged that it might be difficult. On my fifth day, I was given apologies and excuses both, with heartfelt insistence that this had been an exceptionally tough week. But from more than one veteran journalist, I heard grumbles that Obama rarely speaks to them. He hadn't wandered to the back of the plane for a chat in weeks. Said one, "You know, with McCain, sometimes he talks so much you wish he'd go away. But Obama's the opposite."

If you think about Obama as an ordinary person, you can't blame him for his reserve. You wouldn't want to make charming conversation with a bunch of strangers with computers and cameras either, after a long day of reaching out to thousands of voters. You wouldn't want to risk saying something that could be misconstrued and used against you, in the course of casual banter over crudités in the back of your airplane. But of course, you probably don't have an airplane, or not one with your name emblazoned on the side in enormous letters; whereas Obama now does.

Even though it is key to his platform, Obama can no longer be an ordinary person. He foresaw this—wrote eloquently about it in "The Audacity of Hope"—but in foreseeing it, could not forestall it. The process—this process of relentless scrutiny, of unending public appearances, this warping distortion of an individual that seems, quite aside from the election at its end, like an insane torture experiment—is transforming him into a wholly public figure. What the implications of this might be—for himself, and for the voters—are not entirely clear. His aim has been to remain subtle, to remain supple, not to be forced to simplify his presence, or his message, and to endeavor, insofar as is possible, to keep listening to the voices of ordinary Americans. But instead, inevitably, he is engaged in the strange performance art of campaigning, in which he pauses at a roadside fruit stand in Florida in order, ostensibly, to meet regular folks, but arrives with such an entourage of milling cameras and journalists and handlers that by the time he's ready to press the fruit ("Am I allowed to squeeze these peaches?") or press the flesh, there are very few regular folks in sight, and it all seems rather like an act.

In this weird campaign world, in which the candidate is ubiquitous but, in any practical sense, elusive, the primary source of interest for the press necessarily becomes the rest of the press. They've heard the stump speech a thousand times, and surely, now, are barely listening as Obama revisits his familiar talking points. But they still need to file stories. What makes a story noteworthy is that it is taken up by the media, repeated and bounced around in the press until it becomes, as Obama once wrote, "a hard particle of reality." For example, during the week in which I followed him, we all heard him say numerous times, in the course of his stump speech, "They [the Republicans] are going to say 'He's risky. He's new, he doesn't look like all the other presidents before'." We heard him say it, and almost nobody reported on it; nobody, that is, until the McCain camp accused him, in saying this, of "playing the race card from the bottom of the deck." Then, suddenly, the unnoticed joke-in-passing erupted into a small firestorm: the same journalists who had let the comment slide were called upon to provide speedy analysis of its significance. In this case, the McCain campaign set the spin. Oftentimes it's the journalists themselves—the reporters, but also the columnists, at home at their desks—who set the agenda, who create arguments, who sow doubts, and it is to these that the press will reflexively respond.

These may simply be the vagaries of the campaign trail, but it's different for Obama than for McCain: different because he is the less-well-known candidate, the unexpected candidate, the one who is "different," the candidate to whom endless column inches have been devoted in the past months, in an effort to determine who he is and what he stands for and what he will do and what his failings might be. Like the gifted child in a family, or the disabled child in a family, Obama is the one upon whom everyone's gaze is rather tiresomely concentrated. Whether you like him or not, he's more interesting than the other guy. He's the charismatic candidate.

The German sociologist Max Weber, who wrote extensively on charisma almost a century ago, defined it as a quality that sets an individual apart from ordinary men and causes him to be "treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional qualities." Such leaders arise "in times of psychic, physical, economic, ethical, religious, political distress," and, exceptionally, arise only out of the authority they can create—an authority, that is, born of popular devotion, rather than arising out of tradition or legal precedent. McCain, in this instance, is the traditional choice, a man familiar through decades of public life, bearing not his own authority but that of the institutions, military and political, of which he is a part. Obama, on the other hand, arisen at breakneck speed from the common mass, faces the task of creating his own authority, of convincing voters of his forcefulness simply by showing that, as his team's chant would have it, "Yes, We Can."

To create his charismatic authority, Obama has had to work a storyteller's magic, making of his peculiar biography an iconic narrative. Up till now, he's been very good at it. "Dreams From My Father," written more than a decade ago when he was just out of law school, is a memoir in the tradition of Saint Augustine: a confessional reflection upon his supposedly idle, occasionally misspent youth; an account of his spiritual awakening and ensuing sense of mission, and a synthesis of the two into the formation of a highly aware, ethical and committed social being. He writes surprisingly well, often lyrically, with a keen sense of detail and a wry detachment. Indeed, this self-awareness, manifest so early, is a constant in his construction of a public self. It's as if he believes—in an almost magical way—that to air all faults, to foresee criticisms and complications before they arise, is to vaccinate himself against them. (In this way, more recently, he has voiced potential Republican complaints about his candidacy on the campaign trail—such as, indeed, the aforementioned idea that Republicans will dub him risky—in the apparent hope that in so doing he will defuse them.) But as the campaign proceeds into its final months, Obama faces a new difficulty, one in which the compensations of his forethoughtfulness and his storytelling talent are strenuously challenged. These gifts don't count for much if someone else—the press—is shaping the story.

When Obama appears in public, his charisma is evident. He flashes his 1,000-watt smile. He rolls up his sleeves. He modulates his voice, and his syntax, and his sentence structure, depending upon his audience. We know from his writings that he is an observer of details; we know from his biography that he is eminently adaptable, and a quick learner. If humility is called for, he takes the physical postures of humility, his head bowed, his hands behind his back, his slender frame seeming to reduce itself before our eyes. When strength is in order, his height, his prominent sober head, his long arms all lend him a commanding aura, and his voice, with its oratorical cadences, booms. When he is called upon to listen, he truly listens, his head cocked to one side, his face furrowed in concentration, his eyes all but unblinking, his body completely still. He cracks jokes; he asks intelligent questions; he maintains a level of civility and gravitas for which, by all indications, the American public is thirsty. People, hearing him speak, are swayed by this presence; they are frequently converted.

When Obama makes a truly unannounced stop at the Bell Restaurant in Lebanon, Mo., a small town in the Ozarks, there is an audible intake of breath at his arrival. The Bell is a diner with cracked orange vinyl seats, speckled Formica floors and fat slices of pie in tight Saran Wrap, visited by frustrated flies, dotted along the counter. Out back, there is a bell-shaped pool, empty now, visible through smeary plate-glass windows. The air inside hangs heavy with tobacco, and many of the patrons are leathered by a lifetime of smoking. They are largely older, white, country people, surprised at their late lunches or early suppers by the grand retinue and the man at its center. A woman of 80 or thereabouts, rail thin, with a shock of flossy hair, dressed as if for church in a puffy white blouse and a long skirt, introduces herself and embraces Obama enthusiastically near the door, while another customer pushes his baseball cap back on his forehead and mutters, "Don't that beat all."

Obama makes his way slowly through the restaurant, stopping to chat quietly with all who are interested. He responds to one middle-aged man's question about oil production and offshore drilling ("What I don't want to do is say something just because it sounds good politically"), then shakes the hands of four retirees in a booth, saying, "Gentlemen, I'm sorry for all the fuss," before discussing the state of the economy. Mary Andersen, the young waitress in a crimson smock at the cash register, is all aflutter, busy, like many others in the diner, taking Obama's photograph with her cell phone: "I think he's awesome," she says. "His personality—I'm just—I'm so nervous and overwhelmed." At her shoulder, Shirley Tucker, 58, of nearby Phillipsburg, confides, "I started liking him the first time I saw him. I can't believe he's here. He reminds me of JFK."

In the back room, in front of a faded woodland diorama, Obama shakes the hand of John Daniels, a ruddy young construction worker with his front tooth missing. Daniels speaks of being out of work for six months; Obama speaks about stabilizing the economy and creating jobs. "You do that, and I'll vote for you forever," says Daniels. After Obama has moved on, a journalist asks Daniels if he will, in fact, vote for the candidate: "Yes, I will," he says. "Him talking to me helps. I hadn't made up my mind before now." There is some sense that the dazzle of Obama's presence would have sufficed, without even the words.

Next to Daniels stands a young white mother holding her 15-month-old son, Tarrien. A beautiful child with a coffee complexion, a pouting mouth and an alert gaze, he eyes Obama skeptically from the safety of his mother's arms, looking the candidate up and down, up and down. In watching Tarrien watch Obama, there is emotion in knowing that the small boy may never fathom the historic nature of the moment, in which he has encountered the first presidential candidate in America's history to look like himself.

The Ozarks are not, traditionally, a Blue spot on the map. And yet there's a sense, as Obama regains his bus, that the Bell Restaurant may have charted a tiny Blue blip. The patrons of the Bell seem above all struck by the seriousness with which they have been treated—"Him talking to me helps"—by the candidate's willingness to discuss substantive issues in plain language, by the dignity and calm he retains in a potentially circuslike moment.

In this sense, Michelle Stile, the founder of the grass-roots organization Orlando 4 Obama, isn't wrong when she insists that "Obama reminds us of what's good about America. The core decency is huge." Rather like the African-American preachers from whom he clearly learned so much while working as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side, Obama embodies, and proposes, a vision of America that would afford the nation greater self-respect. It is, in Christian outreach—or in Muslim outreach, for that matter; consider the self-discipline of Malcolm X—a time-honored trajectory, a tale of restraint and continence. He stands before the crowd in Rolla, Mo., and insists, "I'm not somebody who's just going to tell you what you want to hear. I'm going to tell you what you need to hear. Because the situation is too serious." He stands up in St. Petersburg, Fla., and announces, "We've got to do some long-term work as well. It's not going to be easy and it's not going to happen overnight." In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he declares, "Most Americans know in their gut that we've got to change."

This reassuring promise of tough love is familiar from religious movements, but also from contemporary reality television, from programs like "The Biggest Loser": it is a template of conversion in which, with the right help, America and Americans can restore ourselves, through hard work and self-denial, to glory. It is ultimately an austere, even old-fashioned approach (this from the man whose children don't get birthday presents, after all), and it is not unjudgmental. In terms of policies, Obama's promise is that we can get out of debt; we can wean ourselves from our dependence on foreign oil; we can provide health care for the underserved; we can restore our image abroad.

And then, embodied in the man and his demeanor, reside the intangibles that bespeak the promise of other kinds of change: the unspoken implication that we, too, could be slender and physically fit, if only we would eat right and exercise, as Obama does. (Thank goodness for his former life as a closet smoker: as he well knows, nobody wants his candidates entirely without vices.) That we, too, could build loving marriages, in which two strong and fulfilled individuals work together to raise intelligent, lively, polite children. That we could make our society more civil, treating one another once again with dignity and politeness, even in disagreement; that we could command respect; that as a nation, we could once again stand tall as we did almost 50 years ago under JFK. When you see him in person, he's charismatic in his promise that we could, if we would just let him help us, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps.

In truth, in his simple dark suits and white shirts, through which the outlines of his undershirts are barely but decidedly visible, with his sleeves rolled up and his hair close-cropped along his skull, Obama himself looks as though he stepped out of a '60's news clip, or out of a documentary about Mormon missionaries, except that he looks, as has been so often noted, a little different. Even though one young woman in Springfield, Mo., rapturously gushed "He's a rock star!" in fact he exudes, in person, an almost nerdy earnestness, and even reticence, an allure that is a far cry from the vapid celebrity John McCain's advertisers would wish to pin upon him.

For anyone to offer Americans a practicable alternative to the long, dark years of fear and shame that we have latterly endured ought to be enough to swing the election. If, for Obama, it still hangs in the balance, it's because his appeal is precisely, in Weber's terms, charismatic. That charisma creates his authority, an authority that does not exist without him; and authority is what he needs to win votes, rather than just attention. The trouble is, in our celebrity-obsessed culture, the charisma is what we focus on.

Having written volumes about his past and his thoughts—books which are, presumably, to answer all our questions—Obama doesn't want to talk about himself, but about his policies. He's a geek that way. But the press, his constant companions and observers, largely absorbed in their own reflection, have heard his stump speech a numbing number of times. For them, it is no longer a story (except when he alters, however minutely and however logically, a position and becomes, thereby, a flip-flopper or an opportunist—which is, of course, a story). Sobriety, civility, earnestness and restraint may be what our country desperately needs, but as the McCain camp well knows, they make for dull copy.

There are still, for many voters, questions remaining, gaps in the portrait Obama has drawn of himself. Some are gaps created, or certainly widened, by the media's increasingly disenchanted analysis of the candidate. In order to succeed, Obama needs to work his considerable authorial magic, to make sure that the stories being told—not just by himself, but by the supremely powerful press—aren't about his freckles (yes, it is true; I may not have shaken his hand, but I did get close enough to see those) or his silhouette in suits, or about his celebrity, or about others' ideas of him. He needs to take control of the storyline and provide the details that will give that storyline authenticity, and authority, so that when the journalists, or the public, want to know who he really is and what he really believes, he will already—convincingly, and with a complexity worthy of his message—have told us.