The Presidential Power Of Symbolism

by Chris Bodenner
Jamie Kirchick has two problems with me arguing that the symbolic narratives of Obama and McCain are equally relevant to the election:

The first is that, unlike Obama, McCain has not predicated his campaign on his identity or personal story. He's predicated it upon his experience, namely, his more than two decades of service in the House and Senate. ... Obama's greatest tangible accomplishments are two books, both of which he wrote about himself.

"McCain has not predicated his campaign on his identity or personal story"?!  That's not just generally wrong, it's literally wrong; McCain's first campaign ad was titled "624787," and it featured grainy, B&W footage of McCain as a POW.  (The ad was so overt, my colleague Jenn Skalka unveiled it with: "John McCain. ... American hero. Let the branding begin.")  And McCain's first act of the campaign was a biographical, cross-country tour of McCain's old stomping grounds.

Also, for the record, McCain has authored five McCain-centered books over the past nine years (plus a made-for-TV movie).  And he seems to have been even more MIA than Obama in the Senate (which says a lot).  But beyond those quibbles, the point remains: Mr. HopeChange and the Mr. Straight-Talk Maverick Express are both self-aggrandizing political brands, second only to Billary.

Secondly, to the extent that McCain has used the "awe-inspiring symbolism of his own personal sacrifice and duty to country" as a campaign theme, it's relevant to being president. Contrary to what Wesley Clark says, getting shot down over Vietnam and being tortured for five years, while certainly not a requirement for presidential office, is a qualification. It's a real demonstration of love of country, honor, and leadership capability. ... The "symbolism" of John McCain is attributable to what he did, "his own personal sacrifice," not who he is. What has Barack Obama "sacrificed" for America?

It's certainly arguable that McCain's narrative has more practical worth for the presidency.  (Though one could also argue that Obama's "awe-inspiring symbolism of his ability to transcend barriers and bring people together" is more relevant in the wake of Bush-Rove than "duty to country" -- a theme the White House overplayed and perverted.)  However, the premise of my post wasn't the pragmatic power of their narratives, but rather their symbolic relevance (which has real, if intangible, impact).  On that score, Obama clearly trounces McCain.  McCain's POW experience is unique, awe-inspiring, and timeless.  But it isn't timely; Obama's "post-racist" persona provides the country a desperately-needed chance for symbolic healing -- not just on race, but on three decades of Bushes, Clintons, and boomers in general.

Therefore, Obama is exactly right; it isn't about him.  His life narrative -- born to biracial parents in the 60s, abandoned by his father, raised by a hardworking mom and two modest Midwesterners of the greatest generation -- was largely chance.  While McCain's crash was chance, he chose to go to Vietnam in the first place, and his POW experience was an active display of sacrifice, suffering, and endurance.  So let's assume McCain's narrative makes him a better man; Obama's narrative makes him a better candidate.  And we're electing a president, not a father to tell us amazing war stories (I'm lucky to have one already).  The country will always have war heroes.  But an Obama administration/generation in the wake of segregation, the 60s, the culture wars, and the Bush GOP only happens once.

Narrative, of course, shouldn't be the only reason to vote for someone.  Those sympathetic to the symbol of Obama won't vote for him if he doesn't pass a certain commander-in-chief threshold.  But the bottom line is this: McCain not only refuses to recognize Obama's symbolism, he openly mocks it. Obama, on the other hand, has always praised McCain's symbolic force as a POW.  The country, and now the world, also sees Obama as a symbolic force.  Yet when he references that reality to colleagues in a private meeting, the McCain camp twists his words into a character assault (a tired, cultural one, at that).  Attack Obama's policies.  Attack his thin resume.  Even poke fun at how ridiculous Obamaniacs can be.  But to launch false attacks suggesting Obama cares more about his campaign than the war and more about his "celebrity" than wounded soldiers is, well, dishonorable.  McCain's favorite new mantra is that Obama would "lose a war to win a campaign."  Increasingly, though, it seems The Maverick would lose his soul to win one.