Politicians and Personality Cults

One of the things I had never noticed before was just how prevalent George Washington's image is around the capital.  The city is named after him, there are statues of him all over the place, the capital and the White House are full of paintings of him, and of course there's that big phallic symbol out on the mall.   I found it a bit off-putting, something I would expect more of Napoleon or a Roman Emperor than a US President.  The oddest site of all was the mural on the dome of the capital, which actually shows the deification of George Washington, a leitmotif taken from Roman emperors and tyrants like Julius Caesar, who were often deified by Senate proclamation after their deaths.


Which brings me to our current president.  The cult of personality around Obama as seen in the Washington area is just startling, and horribly troubling for those concerned about the power of the state and individual liberty.  Pictures of him and his family are seemingly on every wall, with whole souvenir shops dedicated to everything Obama.  Searching for some kind of analog, I actually found two:

  • Princess Diana -- Little of what Princess Diana said or did bore up under much scrutiny, but it didn't matter.  For some reason, huge numbers of people totally invested themselves in her personality cult.   In fact, the more screwed up she was, and the more mistakes and weakness she admitted to, the more people rushed to support her.   I was in London a few days after her funeral, and it was the only occasion I had ever seen as much merchandise sales for a government figure as I did this week for Obama.
  • Augustus Caesar.   Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, or Augustus, had the problem of wanting all the power of a tyrant, but he knew the dangers because his [adoptive] father Julius Caesar had been killed for being a tyrant.  So he brilliantly built over time a personal loyalty among those in the state to himself, and exercised power with good PR.  He was more powerful and more autocratic than Julius Caesar, but cleverly disguised the fact.  He gave the people the illusion of freedom without the reality, and they ate it up.


  1. Dan:

    The apotheosis theme dated back at least to the Romans, but it was still fairly current. Rubens had famously done one such scene for James I. (No doubt, it takes chutzpah.)

    In Washington's case, the man really was that loved and respected around the country. Even while he was alive, the two major parties fought over the control of his memory, sabotaging each others' attempts at memorialization. This continued until the Federalist party collapsed after the War of 1812.

    The Capitol fresco was painted in 1865, and I'm very curious about the decision to commission a painting during the Civil War. Usually in the 19th-century Congress, art commissions were horribly controversial acts even in peacetime,

  2. rob sama:

    Yeah, but I always liked the image of "War" with the American Flag shield. Wikipedia has a good article explaining all the different aspects of the painting.


  3. Link:

    Obama is a lot like Peron, without the gold braid. He too had a cult of personality.

  4. Kris:

    There's a masonic temple which acts basically as a shrine to him in Old Town Alexandria, right down the road from DC.