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An Infomercial Never Felt So Good (so Good, So Good)

Why was the Obamomercial tonight so fabulous, since so much of it was an expansion of the kind of political pabulum you see on a regular 30-second TV spot? There were the standard biopic bits ("my father, I only met him once, when I was ten"), the family visuals, the leader-preaching-to-the-approving-crowds shots (including one memorable one zooming in on an old retiree at a town hall, who listened to Obama deliver encouraging words on his pension with his mouth hung slightly open, in awe, like a baby bird). There were endless unsurprising testimonials from pols who've already sounded their Obama love from the rooftops, Deval Patrick and Kathleen Sebelius and Tim Kaine. There was even a quintessentially goofy cameo by Joe Biden. All boilerplate.

But then there was the quarter of the infomercial that did something I haven't really seen in campaign ads this year. Obama, who's presented himself as so many things this campaign cycle -- activist hero, writer, celebrity -- transformed himself into yet another character: the journalistic chronicler. 

In between the standard-fare bits, Obama channeled a Katie Couric vibe, gently relating other people's stories exactly like a soft-news anchor does. Most man-on-the-street campaign ads let their men on the street speak entirely for themselves; instead, Obama narrated some of the details he'd learned about various worried people he'd met on the trail himself: "Ten years ago she bought a house outside the city" (Rebecca Johnston) ... "Every morning, she's up before the sun" (Juliana Sanchez) ... and so on. The stories -- and the details of their lives that Obama lingered over -- were small, even mundane, unlike the pathos-filled heroics of the Everyman figures John Edwards or Hillary used to talk about (remember that tiresome Hillary-loving kid who sold his bicycle?).

Look, the performance was scripted, so I won't extrapolate too broadly on Obama's actual character from it, but the person he presented himself as tonight was a listener, a gatherer of stories, a reporter, somebody who's interested in the pure, gritty texture of his interlocutors' lives, and not merely in the way their lives happen to illustrate his abstract positions. At one juncture, he gave a shout-out to a woman he'd met in Iowa whose son had recently deployed*. The reminiscence didn't even entirely have a point. Its goal was to telegraph that he was listening, even to the random people on the trail who -- unlike, say, Joe the Plumber -- were never destined to become symbols.

Obama never mentioned McCain. But McCain was present, his signature stubborn bullheadedness brought out in the contrast. I hadn't thought about it much before, but McCain really doesn't relish this kind of from-the-trail detail, doesn't relish talking about people he's met, at all. His fundamental pitch is that he's capable of forcing the moral right -- which he's uniquely able to perceive on account of his unusual experiences early in life -- on a morally-benighted world that either doesn't know what right is, like the simple child at Passover, or doesn't desire it (the venal members of his own party, the countries that "don't like us very much," etc).

Obama's opposing pitch, tonight, was that he's a kind of flypaper, absorbing the world and its ideas to arrive, later, at a more aggregate understanding of how to proceed. Actually, in spite of all the celebrity crap and the speech in Berlin and the 100,000+ crowds and the hymn and all that "messianism" we've been chewing over for 18 months -- much of which truly rubbed me the wrong way -- his final argument was totally and persuasively humble. It recalled the "Team of Rivals" leadership style. And it ceded no ground to McCain's critique that such a political style, one that depends on listening to others, is weak or naive. The supremely serene Obama was neither on defense nor on offense tonight.

The whole thing came to a head at the very end*:

Everybody here's got a story. Everybody here's got a story of a grandparent or great grandparent who worked in a coal mine ... I'm reminded every single day that I'm not a perfect man. I will not be a perfect president ... [But] I will listen to you when we disagree ... and most importantly, I will open the doors of government and ask you to be involved in your own democracy again.

Delivered over a montage of black and white photos that subtly recalled the imagery of the civil rights era, this part just killed. "I will listen to you when we disagree": Who, after the last eight years, doesn't pine for some of that?

Just one big disappointment. Why no Republican official in the video? Biden mentioned Obama's work with Dick Lugar, but, in his monkish neutrality, I suppose Lugar was unwilling to actually appear. A statesmanlike GOP cameo would have been the Team-of-Rivals-esque icing on the cake. Colin Powell, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

*Transcribed hastily from the TV. Precise transcript to come. 

--Eve Fairbanks