POSTSCRIPT / January 20, 2009 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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The first BlackBerry US president is here

(I could not resist lifting this item from to share it with PhilSTAR readers. Author is Tina Brown, founder and editor-in-chief of — fdp)

PRESIDENT Barack Hussein Obama, as he will be tomorrow, has changed everything about America already — not just by being what he is but by being who he is. He is not just the first black president. He is the first BlackBerry president.

When George W. Bush hit the campaign trail in 2000, the precious possession he brought with him from home was his feather pillow. The theme of the Bush years was obliviousness. The outgoing President was famously unavailable for debate. He was deaf to countervailing voices. He hit the sack early and always got a good night’s sleep.

What the pillow was to Mr. Bush the BlackBerry is to Mr. Obama. Mr. Bush couldn’t wait to turn in; Mr. Obama can’t bear to tune out. It’s richly symbolic that Mr. Obama has been resisting the security agencies’ attempts to pry his fingers from around his beloved electronic device. His fight to keep his BlackBerry shows how strongly he doesn’t want to be cut off. He wants to stay in touch with the advisers and friends who can bypass the gatekeepers. (C u meet me at the g8 fr coffee 2nite?)

It always seemed to me ironic that the McCain campaign kept referring sneeringly to the young senator’s meager resumé — a mere community organizer! — before he entered electoral politics. It was Mr. Obama’s experience as a community organizer that proved such a killer application when he allied that skill to the internet. Those 12 million volunteers were literally conjured out of the air. Not only could he deploy his web army to distribute his leaflets, raise his funds and sell his policies, he could speak directly to them whenever he hit a snag. When he accepted the Democratic nomination in Mile High Stadium, tens of thousands held up their glowing mobile phones like candles at a rock concert.

But Mr. Obama was not just ahead of the curve in the way he understood the web. He was also the harbinger of a societal shift that is being played out before our eyes in the economic meltdown. He understood instinctively that the old structures — in his case, the structures of politics — had to be broken down and reassembled if we are to compete in the new world.

The same will prove true of business. The election delivered a seismic shock not just to the political world but to the suits at the top of Fortune 500 corporations. Call it the Obama effect — a sudden hunger for creativity and innovation, a recognition that we have to be less massive and more nimble. It came too late for some, of course, as almost simultaneously we saw the sclerotic auto companies collapsing before us. The mantra of the next decade will be more consensual, less top-down, more cellular, less gigantic. By the end of this new presidential era every CEO who boasts that he has no time to use the internet will be gone.

The new President’s biggest cultural impact could be to reverse the anti-intellectual atmosphere that reached its apogee under Bush the younger. Mr. Obama’s John Coltrane cool allows him to get away with being a nerd. Being brainy, being a wonk, is allowable when the package is lean and effortlessly hip, with serious eyes and a movie-star smile. He could make it fashionable to be book-smart after years of Hollywood depictions of the kid in the class with his nose in a book as a hopeless loser. (There’s already a mini-cult building around his lead speechwriter, Jon Favreau, who is all of 27.)

Would Mr. Obama have been able to pull this off if he were white? Seems unlikely. His literary prowess, preference for salads over steaks and refined intelligence would have damned him as one of the dreaded liberal elite. As President he can appoint a Cabinet of overcredentialed brainiacs from Harvard.

At the same time, Mr. Obama can say things to his African-American supporters that no white leader ever could. He listens to Jay-Z on his iPod, dances without biting his lower lip and can sink a three-point basketball shot on the first try. His formidable wife is unmistakably black. That makes it OK for him to declare to a black voter: “Brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What’s wrong with that? Come on.” It’s in such personal exchanges with his base that the Obama cultural shift is likely to be most potent.

America is now besotted with the images of the Obama family, those two enchanting little girls in their spic-and-span dresses, holding hands with their proud, statuesque mother and their father. Michelle Obama may prove to be the most fully realized First Lady ever. She seems to have resolved with Obamian grace the torment of modern women: how to juggle work and family. Unlike Hillary Clinton she doesn’t strive to compete with her husband because she doesn’t have to. But unlike Nancy Reagan or Laura Bush she leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that she can. She’s just chilling for a while until the kids find their feet. She seems to be telling a nation of frazzled women: you’re allowed to breathe.

Sensible of the comparisons perhaps to Kennedy’s Camelot that promoted the arts at the White House, Mr. Obama said in a TV interview in December that he wants to highlight the diversity of American culture, inviting jazz musicians and classical musicians and poets to perform for his guests. “Historically,” he mused, “what has always brought us through hard times is that national character, that sense of optimism, that willingness to look forward, that sense that better days are ahead.”

The whole world prays that that sense will be proved true. It has a better chance now that President Barack Hussein Obama has broken the dark spell of the Bush years and pledged to return America to itself.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 20, 2009)

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