For one thing, self-made, boundary-crossing leaders generally arise in times of upheaval, when it's clear familiar ways aren't working. Were it not for the French Revolution, after all, Napoleon's "supernatural energies might [have died] away without creating their miracles,'' as Disraeli himself observed. Disraeli's own career took place in a rapidly industrializing England. Fujimori's slogan, in a time of economic chaos, was "Cambio'' or "change.'' As for the Berber, Arab, and Balkan Roman emperors, they were Latin-speaking Colin Powells—outsiders who had entered politics' elite circles via military service.
About their atypical and unprivileged status, boundary-breaking leaders have, like Obama, usually been open, not shy—a second trait they often share. They make a loud, clear show of the fact that they aren't hiding or trimming their origins. Fujimori was happy to be called "El Chino.'' Napoleon took his emperor's crown from the pope and ostentatiously placed it on his head himself. Disraeli, though a Christian from age 13 on, never tried to hide his Jewish identity. "Yes, I am a Jew,'' he famously told a boorish opponent in parliamentary debate, "and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.''
At the same time, of course, Disraeli could not and would not be pigeonholed as the representative of a minority. Instead, he made an asset of his supposed liability in two ways, as Adam Kirsch lucidly explains in his recent book about Disraeli and Jewish identity. First, Disraeli argued, in word and in deed, that there was no need to choose between Jewishness and Britishness—he could have both. Second, he hinted that his complexities and ambiguities of identity, his supposedly troubling "foreignness,'' would be of service to the nation. His exotic traits added up to a feature, not a bug. He could be both a British gentleman and a conjuror with skills beyond the ken of mere gentlemen.
Of course, opponents could and did denounce these plenipotentiaries as blank, being all things to all people. Disraeli acknowledged this, writing, "I am new enough on the national political screen that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripe project their own views.'' Oh, wait. My bad. That was Barack Obama in The Audacity of Hope. Disraeli's line, according to Kirsch, was, "I am the blank page between the Old Testament and the New.''
When charges of subterfuge fail to stick to a minority candidate, it is often because the target has made them ridiculous by showing a strong, sincere strain of don't-rock-the-boat conservatism. That surprising appeal to tradition is a third theme that repeats in their stories. Many such leaders have a reverence for, as Larissa MacFarquhar wrote of Obama, "the constriction of tradition, the weight of history, the provincial smallness of community, settling for your whole life in one place with one group of people.'' Napoleon, who once said "there is no good morality without religion,'' reconciled France with the Catholic Church and restored monarchy. Disraeli, of course, spent three decades as a Tory defending England's status quo against any and all newfangled assaults. Even as he wrought political changes beyond the imagining even of his Liberal adversaries, he spoke of preserving the good old ways of yore. A politician who offers this kind of outlook can make exotic facts paradoxically reassuring. It's as if the jolt of their minority identity is a kind of promise that the surprises have been covered, that the rest of the show will be safe.
The lesson to be gleaned, then, from the hardly new success of "outsider'' leaders is that, in troubled times, people want leaderly reassurance. But it's not necessarily ethnic/religious/one-of-us reassurance. Rather, they want something new and brave to address their fears, without effacing what they love most about their country. In other words, they want society to be new and old, changed and restored, familiar and unfamiliar. Anyone can say the right things about those contradictory desires, but it's much more convincing to elect a person who by birth embodies them.
Barack Obama addressed that need and so accomplished a great and surprising political feat. It takes nothing away from his achievement to recall that he wasn't the first national leader to do so. After all, it means he also won't be the last.