Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Race for president builds characters

Expand Messages
  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-gitlin28-2008sep28,0,2 70361.story Race for president builds characters Once again, we re treated to not
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 30, 2008

      Race for president builds characters
      Once again, we're treated to not just a campaign but a collision of myths.

      By Todd Gitlin
      September 28, 2008

      This election campaign is about more than its issues, slogans, proposals,
      strategies, tactics, attacks or counterattacks. Like most presidential
      elections, it represents a collision of myths. Every four years, various
      versions of America wrestle with one another, and through this combat, the
      nation inspects itself, turns itself over and over, striving to choose not
      only how it wants to be led but what it wants to affirm, how it wants to be
      known -- really, what it wants to be.

      Americans, of course, aren't always focused on these grand stakes; day to
      day, they see a more down-to-earth campaign -- the stump speeches, the
      barbs and one-liners, the attack ads. Pettiness consumes the attention of
      journalists and the prurient interest of the jaded. Sometimes the combat
      rises to the level of issues and policies. Sometimes it even approximates a
      rational contest as the candidates try to explain what they think is wrong
      and what they propose to do about it. Petty or substantive, all these are
      elements of the surface campaign, which may, in the end, determine who wins
      and loses but also obscures what is really at stake.

      The true campaign is the deep campaign, the subsurface campaign, which
      concerns not just what the candidates say but who they are and what they
      represent -- what they symbolize.

      In July, Barack Obama took some criticism for saying that "the crowds, the
      enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about
      America. I have just become a symbol." Some people thought that sounded a
      bit arrogant, but he was right. It was not a boast, it was a fact. People
      look at the candidates and project onto them something they value.

      The candidates become, in a sense, walking archetypes. To warm to a
      candidate is to align not just with a person but with a myth, an ideal.
      Sometimes we say that people prefer the candidate they "feel more
      comfortable with" or the one they "would like to have a beer with," but to
      put it that way is to trivialize the deeper truth.

      Part of what makes this year's race so volatile -- and so absorbing -- is
      the range of archetypes it has mobilized. Sen. John McCain is relatively
      familiar. He is the leathery man of the West, of exactly the sort who has
      entranced the Republican Party for almost half a century now. It is the
      role that Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush played before

      McCain himself invokes Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Rider who, despite his
      New York origins, ranched in South Dakota and hunted throughout the West.
      Those who admire McCain tend to believe that it was men of this sort --
      rugged individualists, plain-spoken, straight-talking, self-sufficient men
      at home in nature (not in our effete cities) -- who settled the West on
      their own. The myth discounts the immense role of the federal government in
      conquering the natives, seeing that the railroads were built, adjudicating
      disputes, arranging for water. No matter: Print the legend. In this image
      of the Old West, history belongs to the man who takes charge, the warrior
      in command who knows how to shoot and how to lead others to shoot as well.

      To McCain's incarnation of this powerful archetype has been added the
      sidekick Sarah Palin. Palin mobilizes a powerful and unusual -- powerful
      partly because it is unusual -- supplementary combination of myths. She is
      Annie Oakley, the sharpshooter who foolhardy men underestimate at their
      peril even if she has a penchant for tall tales. But Palin is also Wonder
      Woman, the super-heroine whose exploits and attractions appeal to both
      sexes. And she is Aimee Semple McPherson, the onetime revivalist and
      moralist of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. In the
      imagination of her followers, Palin is some combination of Glamour, Outdoor
      Life, Playboy and DC Comics.

      If the Republican ticket harmonizes with deep mythic currents, the
      Democrats this year are pioneering, and a bit scrambled, in their mythic
      significance. Obama is the quintessential outsider -- a "sojourner," the
      New York Times' David Brooks has called him. He hails from exotic Hawaii,
      alien Indonesia, elegant Harvard and down-and-dirty Chicago, all at the
      same time. To his devotees, he is part city-slicker, part man of the world;
      to his enemies, precisely this combination makes him suspect. Like the Lone
      Ranger, he rides into town to serve a community in need, but in a
      surprising twist, this Lone Ranger is closer to the color of Tonto.

      Mythically, therefore, Obama is elusive, Protean, a shape-shifter who, when
      not beloved, arouses suspicion. Perhaps he is that object of envy and
      derision, a "celebrity," as the McCain campaign suggested, but he's also an
      egghead. He's the professor -- but one who can sink the shot from beyond
      the three-point circle. He too has a sidekick, but, if you judge by their
      resumes, it is as if Robin has chosen Batman. One thing is clear: He is not
      a man of the ranch. Personifying a welter of archetypes, he thrills some,
      confounds others and jams circuits. Some people ask, "Who is this guy?"

      So that's the clash. McCain, the known quantity, the maverick turned
      lawman, fiery when called on to fight, an icon of the old known American
      story of standing tall, holding firm, protecting God's country against the
      stealthy foe. Obama is the new kid on the block, the immigrant's child, the
      recruit, fervent but still preternaturally calm, embodying some complicated
      future that we haven't yet mapped, let alone experienced. He is impure --
      the walking, talking melting pot in person. In his person, the next America
      is still taking shape.

      The warrior turned lawman confronts the community organizer turned law
      professor. The sheriff (who married the heiress) wrestles with the outsider
      who rode into town and made a place for himself. No wonder this race is
      thrilling and tense. America is struggling to fasten a name on its soul.

      Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia
      University, is the author, most recently, of "The Bulldozer and the Big
      Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.