The Phoney War Is Over


Two men now offer themselves to America, as the race starts over. My take on two very American Americans in the Sunday Times:

Obama’s Americanness, however, is deep, for all the aspersions of otherness thrown at him. His DNA combines two of the more indelible American identities: heartland grit and immigrant dreams. Half his family has roots in Kansas, the heart of the heartland. His largely absent father came from a distant place, Kenya, and Obama grew up in, among other places, Indonesia. These two identities place him at the centre of a churning, yet traditionally immigrant country.

His eclectic Americanness reveals itself elsewhere as well.

He is at home in the rabble-rousing church of his former pastor Jeremiah Wright and yet he is also in his element at the University of Chicago and Harvard Law School. He plays basketball and can write like a professional novelist. He is a product of modern Chicago and premodern Indonesia - and able to note similarities in each.

It is hard to think of a man with this story existing in any other country, let alone being in a position, in his mid-forties, to become the president of it. In the context of America, though, the strangeness of Obama is not so strange. It is imbued with the possibility of self-reinvention. Nothing is more American than that.

The raw appeal of McCain as a candidate, on the other hand, is rooted in another form of Americanness.

It is an older form but just as potent. McCain draws on the Scots-Irish belligerence and sense of honour that have fuelled America for centuries. A military man through and through, his uniformed pedigree goes back generations to the war of independence. McCain represents tradition in this sense, a man whose instinctive solidarity with Britain, for example, is second nature to him.

Psychologically, he is both a passionate servant of what he regards as national honour - and yet he is also an indefatigable rebel. He has rarely met an institution that he does not want to both uphold and to undercut. He broke every rule in the Naval Academy and yet it would be hard to express the love the man obviously has for the US armed services. He is a revered senator and shrewd legislator, but almost all his Senate colleagues have been at the wrong end of a barrage of expletives at one time or other.

His Vietnam war career was undistinguished. He was involved in a dreadful accident on an aircraft carrier and then got shot down early in combat. But when he was in the worst position imaginable - captured, tortured, held for years in a hellish prison - his sense of duty never wavered.

His father, by that time, was the commander of all US forces in the Vietnam theatre and McCain could have secured early release. The single, unimpeachable act of heroism that set him apart from every other PoW was his refusal to be freed ahead of his fellow soldiers. He was all-too-human in every other way: cracking under torture, giving false confessions to serve Vietnamese propaganda and attempting suicide because of the shame he felt for submitting. But beneath his incompetence and insolence there was a character and sense of duty worth not just taking seriously, but honouring.

McCain is a far more mercurial, emotional and volatile character than Obama. Despite being a generation older - he will be 72 on Friday - he is temperamentally much younger than his rival. There is a lot of Churchill in McCain: the melodrama and the sanctimony, the mawkishness and the sincerity, the big heart and sometimes faulty judgment.