In Campaign 2008, the story's the thing

FictionBarack ObamaIslamColleges and UniversitiesCindy McCain

On the front page of Thursday's Los Angeles Times was a story about John McCain. It was not really a news article but a story that could have begun: "Once upon a time ... "

We were told McCain's history, from his parents' romantic elopement to Tijuana to his earliest memory: "Jack, the Japs have bombed Pearl Harbor!" to how he stood up for a Philippine steward while his classmate "stormed off in embarrassment and anger." The writer's purpose undoubtedly was to make the candidate come alive for us -- to make him as real in the almost hyper-real way that a character is in a crafted fiction.

Humans have a fundamental need for story. The three-act structure -- beginning, middle and end -- is found in every culture and across every class. Lord Vishnu and Brahma. Leda and the Swan. Moses and the tablets. We need stories to tell us who we are, where we belong and where we should end up. A story is based on cause and effect. It reveals all we long to know: a past, a present and a future. There is security in happily ever after.

Politics and story go hand in hand. Ronald Reagan's campaign slogan, "It's Morning Again in America," was the narrative Americans wanted. It implied a dark and scary past. It told of a present in which the sun is rising. And it promised a brighter day in the future. The American people bought it.

Bill Clinton took it one step further when he hired TV producers Harry Thomason and his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. Masters at popular narrative, they could not have embellished a better candidate character than Clinton. He really was from a small town called Hope. His single mother taught him the value of hard work and determination. He worked his way through college and into public service.

Sound familiar? It is Barack Obama's story and Sarah Palin's story and at the heart of every dime novel Horatio Alger wrote. It is the quintessential American story, from nowhere to the American dream.

George W. Bush did his best to rewrite his story to fit the mold, creating a persona as a good ol' boy from a ranch in Texas when he was actually one of the country's elite, attending Andover Academy in Massachusetts, Yale University and receiving his MBA from Harvard.

Early in Obama's convention speech, he said, "Four years ago, I stood before you and told you my story -- of the brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren't well off or well known, but shared a belief that in America, their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to."

In her acceptance speech, Palin told her version of the story: "My mom and dad both worked at the elementary school in our small town. And among the many things I owe them is one simple lesson: that this is America, and every woman can walk through every door of opportunity."

Such story lines can tell us something important about the other kind of character -- what they're made of. And yet, we are shown, glibly, what we are meant to see: Just as Bush was more good ol' boy than Ivy League; Clinton emphasized Arkansas, not Yale and Oxford; McCain's hero tale pushes his 26 years as a true Washington insider to the sidelines.

And sometimes the narrative paradigm can altogether backfire.

Consider these titles: "The Maverick of Mayhem." "Schooled in Terrorism." "My Brother Is My Baby." Pulp fiction from the 1950s? No, this is the other narrative of Campaign 2008. These are the tales circulating among bloggers, extremists and everyone standing around a workplace water cooler. McCain is an unstable POW with post-traumatic stress disorder. Obama was educated at a Muslim school specializing in jihad. Palin's daughter is pregnant ... again.

Healthcare reform? We'd rather hear about Obama's deadbeat Muslim dad. Social Security? We want to know about Cindy McCain's millions. Welfare? The only teen mother we're interested in -- now that Jamie Lynn Spears has delivered -- is Bristol Palin.

It would be nice to think that the American public is smarter than this, but time after time we turn to the story -- absurd or not -- because it's easier to digest than a policy paper. And whether it's a candidate's operatives or his enemies telling the tale, everyone knows the ones that stick are, just like what dominates the new-fiction bestseller list, the most sensational. It's the same impulse that has us slowing down as we drive by a traffic accident.

And in a world that only gets scarier, we need stories more than ever. We especially need the catharsis we experience from hearing about other peoples' suffering. When we were kids, we learned about Abe Lincoln reading by the light of the fireplace, about George Washington who could not tell a lie, about Patrick Henry who demanded liberty or death. But such stories just aren't good enough any more. They can't compete with "Gossip Girls" or "Heroes." They definitely cannot compete with the never-ending news.

In 1984, I was a production assistant for a political media consultant. We had many Democratic clients, from a candidate for state Senate to Walter Mondale. We wrote campaign slogans and produced 30-second spots like mini-movies that spun the candidates' narratives precisely. We told their stories honestly, but we made them as dramatic as possible. As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, "What is drama, but life with the dull bits cut out?" It was after my year in politics that I moved to Hollywood. The kind of storytelling that happens here feels more honest.

Diana Wagman, a Cal State Long Beach professor, teaches screenplay writing and is the author of the novels "Skin Deep," "Spontaneous" and "Bump."

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