You can hear all the great leaders of the past in Barack Obama’s stentorian voice, see them in his confident bearing, feel them with his preacher’s urgency: JFK, RFK, MLK.
Or can you? Maybe Obama’s primary source of inspiration is none of these. Maybe it’s Cyrus.
Cyrus, like many of the cultural deities of our time (Roseanne, Seal, Gallagher) did not require a last name. He was simply Cyrus; the healer, the leader, the visionary. At the start of the 1979 cult classic The Warriors — an enduring favorite of athletes and hip-hoppers, as well as people who don’t have criminal records — all of the gangs of 1970s New York are gathering from all over the city, unarmed on orders from the great man, to hear what Cyrus has to say at a park in the Bronx.
Cyrus, like Obama, arrives at his position on the basis of buzz. “Everybody says that Cyrus is the one and only,” says the leader of the Warriors gang. Another gangbanger, asked what he knows of Cyrus, replies, “Magic. Whole lot of magic.” Obama is described as magic more often than Earvin Johnson (though Johnson himself, perhaps feeling his nickname was endangered, derided Obama as “a rookie”). “He’s the one and only,” another hoodlum says of Cyrus. Compare that with Oprah Winfrey’s comment, “I know Obama is the one.”
Cyrus casts his gaze over an admiring throng — the downtrodden, the cast-off, the freaks, the underemployed, the young, the minorities, the criminals and the just plain angry — that basically encapsulates the Democratic party. The only missing element is the rich-but-guilty class that funds all of the above and whose response to hardened thugs like these is to offer them more chances to play midnight basketball.
Cyrus is a master politician. Here he is on the awesome power of coalition building: “Can you count, suckers? I say the future is ours if you can count!” He explains, “Now look what we have here before us. We got the Saracens sitting next to the Jones Street Boys. We’ve got the Moonrunners right by the Van Cortlandt Rangers. Nobody is wasting nobody. That is a miracle. And miracles is the way things ought to be.”
He continues, “the problem in the past has been the Man turning us against one another. We’ve been unable to see the truth.” Obama assails those who would “slice and dice this country into red states and blue states, blue collar and white collar, white, black, brown, young, old, rich, poor” and vows, “We will end it by telling the truth.”
Like Obama, who believes taxes are too low, Cyrus has a populist, redistributionist economic program based on lifting up the underclass (“We could tax the crime syndicates, the police….because we got the streets, suckers!”). Saying there are as many as 60,000 gang members in the city, Cyrus notes that uniting so many of the powerless would yield enough juice to crush the ruling elite: “Now there ain’t but 20,000 police in the whole town!” Obama, too, vows to take on the powerful by being the lord of the losers: “That’s how we’ve always changed this country, not from the top down, but from the bottom up.”
So Cyrus has the support of an organized criminal enterprise; Obama has the support of the Teamsters Union. Cyrus even sounds a bit like a union chief when he praises the extortionary power of work stoppages and slow-downs: “Nothing would move without us allowing it to happen.”
Possibly Obama, who was 17 when The Warriors came out, saw the picture as a young man and marveled at the way Cyrus, a galvanizing speaker who appears to be a mixture of various ethnicities, is referred to as “the president” (of the biggest gang in the city) called upon to address a gathering of “delegates” from 100 different gangs. Maybe when Obama heard Cyrus call out to the frenzied faithful, “Can you dig it? Can you dig it? CAN YOU DIG IT?” an idea formed in Obama’s head about the power of meaningless catchphrases.
Maybe Obama was dazed by the adoration of Cyrus’s audience and the way that, even when Cyrus pauses dramatically, the audience can barely contain itself, shouting, “Come, on Cyrus, we’re with you!” and “Go ahead, bro!” Or, possibly, Obama, who gets his suits from Burberry, simply admired the sharp styling of his predecessor in rabble-rousing. Cyrus wears a loose-sleeved, chest-baring two-toned robe that seems to scream “multiculturally certified,” “Liza Minnelli lounge wear” or maybe just “cult leader.”