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The Globe and Mail

Obama then and now: hero and victim of the hype cycle

It's Nobel Prize season, with stellar contenders for various prizes no doubt wondering if their phones are going to ring and their lives are going to be changed.

Think back to U.S. President Barack Obama's surprising - and no doubt surprised - Nobel moment last year, when he was told he had won the 2009 Peace Prize. The White House, prudently, never did release the actual text of his early morning response, which surely, in today's idiom, must have been along the lines of WTF.

Today, his winning of the peace prize does seem an embarrassment, a clear-cut case of premature evaluation.

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Whether you like what they've done or not, most Nobel winners have an entire body of work that is being recognized, not just a sense that they may be the One.

Sadly, Mr. Obama isn't quite yet the One, as he continues to deal with one major crisis after another coming at him like blades from a professional knife thrower.

Instead, much to the disappointment of his supporters and the glee of his enemies, the former presidential candidate who could stir hundreds of thousands with "Yes, we can!" has turned his presidency into lumpen prose instead of inspiring poetry.

Or as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it, he has morphed into an "eat-your-peas-president for an ice-cream-sundae-nation."

Well, there's nothing wrong with peas, and the United States, for the sake of its fiscal and physical health, could stand to step away from the dessert table.

But that doesn't change the obvious perils of being hailed as the one person who can fix America (or the car industry or movies or Toronto or Montreal or anything else), only to be exposed as just another guy who is doing his best, which may not be nearly good enough.

On the cultural playing field, American novelist Jonathan Franzen is experiencing his own he's-the-one moment with the release of his new novel Freedom, his first in nine years. He was recently anointed by a Time magazine cover story as a "great American novelist" and Oprah gushed that his book was "a masterpiece" as she chose it for her reading club selection.

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(In 2001 Mr. Franzen was disinvited onto Oprah after he publicly expressed ambivalence when his novel The Corrections received Oprah's magisterial blessing. As he said in one recent interview, he didn't even like the fact that the Oprah book sticker was permanent back then - it's removable now. Oh well, then.)

If you're a book lover like me, you can only read so many pronouncements that Freedom is the Great American Novel before you cave in and buy the thing. Which I did, devouring it immediately. It's very entertaining, and it has a wonderful theme - the limitations of personal and political freedom. But its language doesn't always soar and the plot comes close at times to being a soap opera.

Or am I only saying that because I don't like to be told that something is a masterpiece before I get to judge it for myself? Whatever. As critics and readers respond as much to the hype as to the actual book, the next sound you hear will inevitably be that of expectations shattering.

History is littered with the bones of the dis-anointed. Politics is a particularly rich graveyard of overwrought expectations and dashed dreams. John Turner or Stéphane Dion, anyone?

Even Rob Ford, the upstart mayoralty candidate in Toronto who has emerged as the feisty front runner with a month to go, has swiftly gone from being underrated to being hyped beyond reason.

If you watch some of the pro-Ford videos on YouTube, one of them complete with the Isley Brothers singing "You know you make me wanna shout," it's impossible not to feel the exhilaration of his supporters, who appear to be ecstatically thinking they've got the elites on the run and common sense will soon ride back into city hall, maybe in a honking white SUV.

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That's what public life is like these days, an arena of extremes. That is the way our culture treats its public figures.

Hype (not hope) is the order of the day. But "hype" comes from the Greek word hyperbole, which means an exaggerated form of speaking "not intended to be taken literally."

When did we all get so literal? When did we start taking everything at face value?

In an ironic moment last August, President Obama, while on vacation from his dropping polls and touring a Martha's Vineyard book store, was presented with an early copy of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.

No word yet what he thought of it.

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