The term “genius” is normally reserved for those select few who can create artistic masterpieces or solve mind-bending mathematical formulas or explain the plot of any Charlie Kaufmann movie in just a few words. I recently read a description of genius that seems to really capture its essence. Stanley Plumly, author of Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography, defines the mark of true genius as the effortless creation of something wholly new that, once seen, becomes self-evident.
According to this definition, Barack Obama might very well qualify as a genius (as if he hasn’t already received enough accolades.) His personality is one we have not quite seen before and yet it contains an inevitability about it. I’m even at the point of thinking, “Of course Obama is president; it was meant to be.” Now when I think of anyone else serving in that position, it’s as jarring as if another actor instead of Clark Gable had played Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind—it would be all wrong.
I think one of the real reasons that people have taken to him so strongly and elected him president against the odds is that Obama has a genius personality. He has mastered the art of flowing between “person” and “persona” more naturally and seamlessly than any other public figure in recent memory. This allows people to be swept up by his charismatic presence while simultaneously feeling connected to the genuine person.
By now we’re all familiar with his persona: spellbinding orator, geeky professor, coolly ironic humorist, earnest conciliator, somber leader. At the same time we’re also familiar with who he is as a person. And not all of his personal characteristics are necessarily admirable.
During the campaign, for instance, he sometimes appeared exhausted and didn’t—or perhaps couldn’t—hide that fact. He was occasionally peevish, as when he famously allowed during a debate that Hillary Clinton was “likable enough”. In interviews or off-the-cuff remarks he tends to stammer. He has an addictive personality: the crackberry, the physical fitness regimen, the alleged cigarette habit. Yet, rather than diminish his larger-than-life status, these aspects of Obama’s personality humanize him.
And then there’s his quietly emotional side, which is perhaps his most winning trait. In a speech he gave after he’d found out his grandmother had just died, one lone tear rolled down his cheek—and he let it. My favorite Obama moment was when he was sitting on a couch—not too close together—with his mother-in-law, watching the election results, and he reached over to hold her hand. Obama’s well aware that the cameras are constantly on him, yet these gestures felt absolutely sincere to me.
Unlike Obama, most celebrities seem to suffer from a personality imbalance. Their persona eclipses who they are as a person or, in rare cases, they are all person, no persona. Or, sometimes we’re enthralled with the persona. But the person? Not so much.
Take the case of Tom Cruise. How did the movie star of his generation remain so popular for so long? And then why did he suffer such an extreme fall from grace? The public recognized from the early days of Cruise’s fame that persona is what we were being given and that maybe we should be content with just that. The brilliant smile, the boundless energy, the unwavering enthusiasm he expressed about, well, everything—these translated well to the screen. (If you want to see what happens when a director strips Cruise of his Cruiseness, just watch Valkyrie.)
But people also sensed that the intensity of his public persona was hiding a lack of depth and possibly an unsavory need to be excessively controlling. I remember watching a two-hour Inside the Actors Studio in which Cruise repeated the same three or four key points over and over and did not seem to have much else to say; it’s as if he’d been media trained for an open discussion about the art of acting—very odd.
As for his controlling nature, we first witnessed that when he filed for divorce from Nicole Kidman in such a way that kept alimony costs down. What made it worse was that Kidman seemed genuinely taken by surprise.
From there, his devotion to Scientology aroused suspicions about the rigidity and perhaps the strangeness of his beliefs and his aggressive confrontation with Matt Lauer about the use of post-partum anti-depressants made him seem like a bully. The combination of these glimpses into who Cruise is as a person, combined with his lack of understanding that what makes a winning persona in one’s 20s may not be the same as in one’s late ‘30s or ‘40s, went far in destroying the public’s affection for him.
At the other end of the spectrum is someone like Caroline Kennedy, who vied to take over Hillary Clinton’s open Senate seat but whose demeanor did nothing to convince anyone of her desire for it. Many people felt that she did not deserve the appointment, and commentators went on and on about her lack of relevant experience. But, the fact that Obama beat out Clinton and McCain for the presidency had already proved that extensive experience is not what people are most seeking in public officials, right now. Perhaps after eight years Bush Jr., after four years of Bush Sr., the public was tired of the American version of royal families.
But Kennedy suffers from a persona deficit, and this is really what people most objected to. Kennedys are expected to be larger than life, vibrant, athletic, inspirational, and foolhardy, and Caroline did not appear to be any of those things. All person, no persona.
It can’t be easy for celebrities to achieve the right balance of person-persona. I think Oprah comes close. And Dave Chappelle (compare his Inside the Actors Studio segment with Tom Cruise’s and you’ll see what I mean). And John Lennon, in his time.
But maybe it comes most naturally to Obama because he is biracial and grew up in a variety of places with their own cultures and because he is a Christian with a Muslim father. He’s used to being adaptive. He’s used to incorporating different aspects of his identity into one being. Perhaps this has made it easy for him to transition from person to persona and back again without discomfort or falseness. Ultimately, I think that means that he is someone who is supremely comfortable is his own skin.
And that’s a rare quality.