Politicians and Heritage

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[Jon Henke]

Steve Benen is mulling John McCain's recent emphasis on his biography and family background, saying McCain "seems to be the first candidate in recent memory to make family history highly relevant to his campaign." Benen points to Ed Kilgore, who "can't recall any major speech by a president or presidential candidate that was devoted so thoroughly to the subject of the speaker's ... Family Heritage." Mostly, it's just the sort of speculative psychoanalysis that derives from cynicism about opponents.

But....really?

Just a couple weeks ago, Barack Obama gave this speech...

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners - an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.


Barack Obama and his supporters have spent more than a little time talking about Obama's heritage. As well they should. It's an interesting and powerful story.

And what about Jim Webb? As Rolling Stone put it...

Webb is so white he wrote a book about it; Saunders quickly realized Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America could become the rare campaign book voters might actually read, one that doesn't pull punches. In its opening pages, Webb lists the slurs by which his people are known: "Rednecks. Trailer-park trash. Racists. Cannon fodder." ... [Webb] considers poor white Southerners victims of the "monstrous mousetrap" they themselves built for African-Americans. "The Southern redneck" he writes, has become the "veritable poster child of liberal hatred and disgust . . . the emblem of everything that had kept the black man down. No matter that the country-club whites had always held the key to the Big House . . . at the expense of disadvantaged blacks and whites alike.

During Webb's 2006 Senate campaign (disclosure: I worked against him for a couple months), The Washingtonian pointed out that Jim Webb "traces his aggressiveness to heritage, a theory spun at length in his quasi-autobiographical 2004 book, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. “Born Fighting” is also his campaign slogan ... Webb traces his own warrior bloodline to the Revolutionary War, and during a recent campaign visit to southwest Virginia took time out to show his wife and her daughter the grave of his great-great-grandfather, whose Confederate headstone Webb obtained from the Veterans Administration."

For gods sake, Jim Webb even gave a speech "to honor" the Confederate soldiers for their "courage and loyalty", adding that "there truly were different perceptions in the North and South about those reasons, and that most Southern soldiers viewed the driving issue to be sovereignty rather than slavery." Can you even begin to imagine what would be said if a prominent Republican politician had done all that?

So, John McCain talks about his own background and military service. Big deal. Settle down. There aren't deeper meanings and ulterior motives behind everything a Republican says. Sometimes a campaign speech is just a campaign speech.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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