DESTINY, DREAMS, FAITH AND FATHERS
THE POLITICAL storyteller envies the political reality of 2008. Compared with the gray mediocrities usually offered up by the Republican and Democratic parties for the presidency, John McCain and Barack Obama are true characters. The grizzled war hero who’s been a fixture on the political landscape for a generation, the brilliant young street-organizer who comes out of nowhere to electrify the country -- these are archetypes that could populate the likes of “The Best Man,” “Advise and Consent,” “The Manchurian Candidate.” In fact, in McCain’s first race for the White House eight years ago, supporters of his opponent, George W. Bush, even suggested that he was a Hanoi Candidate, brainwashed during his years as a Vietnam prisoner of war.
Assuming a reader can muster up some dispassion, McCain’s 1999 memoir, “Faith of My Fathers” (HarperPerennial: 350 pp., $14 paper) -- co-written, like all his books, with Mark Salter -- and Obama’s 1995 book “Dreams From My Father” (Three Rivers Press: 458 pp., $14.95 paper) elicit admiration for both men, and when was the last election that was true?
An electoral contest invites contrasts, so most conspicuous is what McCain and Obama have in common. Both are touched, in different ways, by the shadows of the fathers who lend themselves to the memoirs’ similarly paternal titles; strikingly, both begin with a shattering paternal death. Having survived ferocious combat in the Pacific, McCain’s grandfather died within hours of returning home from World War II. Since McCain was about to turn 9, one can’t help thinking such a monumental demise, so poetically timed, informed a boy’s romantic vision of the world. He is haunted not only by his father but by the way the father was haunted by his own father: “I hesitate to say my father was insecure,” McCain writes, before going on to say just that. "[His] ambition to meet the standard of his famous father might have collided with his appreciation for the implausibility of the accomplishment.” In a family of admirals, the haunting of sons by fathers is passed down the chain of command like an order to commence firing.
The father who haunted Barry Obama, as the Democratic nominee once called himself, did so in absentia, having left the family when his son was 2. As “Dreams From My Father” opens, a 21-year-old Obama gets a phone call from Kenya telling him that his father has died, and his odyssey to learn about his heritage becomes bound up in his own confusion over racial identity. Obama might be the Joe Christmas of American politics, but unlike the central figure of William Faulkner’s “Light in August,” driven mad because he doesn’t know if he’s black or white, Obama’s journey led to revelation. “Theirs,” he writes of his ancestors, “were the faces of American Gothic” -- not just African but Cherokee and “the WASP bloodline’s poorer cousins,” Scottish and English going back to the Civil War (and both sides of that war). Just as he was “too young to realize,” Obama concludes, “that I was supposed to have a live-in father . . . I was too young to know that I needed a race.”
Their common ground
For both Obama and McCain, fathers shrouded in myth and memory came to embody failures of connection, of fulfilling expectations. Once out of their fathers’ shadows, Obama and McCain, who each partied hearty early on, decided life was more: “That was the problem with booze and drugs,” writes Obama. “They couldn’t stop that ticking sound, the sound of certain emptiness.” As revealed by their writing, both men are not only uncommonly idealistic but, as politicians go, uncommonly reflective -- two things that don’t necessarily go hand in hand. As proved by the current president, who has ideals but believes reflection is for sissies, idealism without reflection is zealotry just as reflection without ideals is solipsism. “Dreams From My Father” and “Faith of My Fathers” suggest that as president neither Obama, fundamentally but not dogmatically liberal, nor McCain, fundamentally but not dogmatically conservative, is likely to be particularly ideological, unless a siege mentality born of the current campaign takes hold.
Sooner or later the similarities between the men give way to vast differences as personal as they are political. Not only the memoirs but also the manifestoes -- Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” (Three Rivers Press: 376 pp., $14.95 paper), McCain’s “Worth the Fighting For” (Random House: 404 pp., $14.95 paper) and “Hard Call” (Twelve: 456 pp., $15.99 paper), as well as “Character Is Destiny” (Random House: 312 pp., $15.95 paper), a collection of short pieces about his personal pantheon, from Joan of Arc to Nelson Mandela to (take note, social conservatives) Charles Darwin -- capture the sensibilities of their authors.
Obama is more coolly elegant while McCain is more visceral. Obama has found a vantage point that’s not exactly omniscient but observed from the second-story window of his life; one wishes he came down to the first floor now and then. McCain concedes to being the legendary hothead of Senate confrontations; even as a child, rage drove him to hold his breath until he blacked out: “At the smallest provocation,” he writes, “I would go off in a mad frenzy, and then, suddenly, crash to the floor unconscious.” Most people aren’t likely to remember decades later everything about their college years, give or take a particularly unhinged romance, but McCain has archived in his psyche every tiff with every classmate at the Naval Academy 50 years ago.
For McCain, ultimately, everything is personal. When you read his books, it’s easier to understand why so much of his campaign against Obama bristles with contempt; to someone raised with a hierarchal military sense, the temerity of a lieutenant bidding to become a general, bypassing captain, major and colonel in between, isn’t just galling but practically insubordination. Didn’t McCain already go through this eight years ago, with that overgrown frat boy whose aristocratic president-father gave him the governorship of Texas?
But the American electorate doesn’t do resumes. If it did, William Seward would have been elected president in 1860, when the country was in its greatest moment of crisis, not some lawyer from Illinois nobody had heard of, and a century later John Kennedy, a senator of arguably less substantive accomplishment than Obama, would not have defeated the more seasoned Richard Nixon. Reading Obama, we recognize what, in the opening sentences of “The Audacity of Hope,” even the author sheepishly calls the “youthful swagger” that his adversaries have labeled “arrogance.” If Obama’s confidence has been too hard-won to be arrogance, his preternatural serenity must drive McCain nuts -- the sense of possibility denied to McCain’s era by the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War, and encouraged in Obama’s by the civil rights movement. Each man is a product of his times up to the point of being a prisoner. Either McCain will be the last 20th century president, or Obama will be the first 21st.
Virtues, to be sure
You don’t have to be a Democrat to admire Obama’s sweeping eloquence, and you don’t have to be a Republican to admire McCain’s raw physical courage. Obama writes like a writer because he is one; it was a big reason he became the first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review. Like Jefferson or Disraeli, the writer became a politician, not the other way around, and like any good writer he’s drawn to ambiguity because he believes in it, which is not the same as saying he doesn’t acknowledge absolutes. McCain writes like a warrior. Samurai words like “honor” and “courage” and “gallantry” riddle his vocabulary without embarrassment, because he’s earned the right to use them. Shot down in Vietnam as a Navy pilot, he was severely tortured and then, when offered an early release because of his father’s admiralty, refused to take it. If McCain is conflicted about anything, it’s his own heroism. Time and again, he returns to a gnawing if extravagant guilt that the Vietnamese were lenient with him because of whose son he was. Fathers again -- in these books, there’s no getting away from them.
We should not presume to glean too much from the writer/warrior business. Our greatest peacetime president, George Washington, was a warrior. Our greatest wartime president, Abraham Lincoln, was a writer. Each succeeded not in spite of his natural disposition but because of it, because he confronted the conventional thinking of more experienced professionals with the perspective of an inspired amateur. We’ll be lucky, of course, if the next president is half what either of those two were. But except for the zero-sum choice on which elections insist, McCain and Obama, the best characters in their own books, together might add up to immortality.
Steve Erickson is the author of eight novels, most recently “Zeroville.” He writes about film for Los Angeles magazine and is the editor of the literary journal Black Clock, published by the California Institute of the Arts, where he teaches.