He's young and brash and outrageously charismatic. When Barack Obama appears, you have to look. When he speaks, you cannot help but listen. Now that the freshman senator from Illinois is one step closer to running for president, he is hearing the predictable criticisms -- mainly that his youth, brashness and charisma divert attention from a disconcerting lack of experience.
That's probably true, but he's hardly the first to run for president carrying that kind of baggage. Nor would he be the first to win.
Obama is 45. It is far too soon to know whether he would be the best choice for president in 2008, but history doesn't offer a bar to either his relative youth or his experience. Obama was elected to the Senate in 2004 after spending just seven years as an Illinois state senator. One of his political heroes, a home-stater named Abraham Lincoln, prepared for the presidency by spending eight years in the Illinois Legislature and two in Congress. John Kennedy, who was 43 when he was elected president, spent six years in the House of Representatives and eight in the Senate.
Politically, American history offers no useful comparison for an African American seeking the presidency. Shirley Chisholm ran in 1972, but for reasons good or bad, she lacked the stature that practically radiates from Obama. Jesse Jackson, in 1984 and 1988, ran in a more racially polarized environment and had narrower appeal.
A more interesting comparison -- one which might not have occurred but for an accident of timing -- is from outside the world of politics. Muhammad Ali turned 65 on Wednesday, and while his failing body doesn't even suggest the steam engine he used to be, he was then what Obama is now: young, brash and outrageously charismatic.
More than that, he, like Obama, transcended his profession and resisted the labels that critics sought to burden him with. Even those who didn't like boxing couldn't help being drawn into Ali's orbit.
His was an exalted status, not unlike that in a cult, except that cults are small and exclusionary and they inhabit the fringes. Just about everyone belonged to the cult of Ali, from Manhattan to Manila.
Even more significant for a black presidential candidate than a fighter, both are seen by most Americans as whole men, not just the color of their skin. In different ways, both are manifestations of Martin Luther King's prayer that we might be judged for the content of our character.
Ali was fireworks in the flesh, and it's painful to have to abide what Parkinson's has done to him. Obama's story is yet to be told, but it is unfolding fast. Hang on tight.