The season of political biography is here again. Media people are political groupies at heart, and nothing fascinates them more than imagining they live among giants, and actually get to know them personally.
"It's all about character, son. That's what it's always been about in the end."
So says John McCain's dad in the movie version of McCain's book, Faith of Our Fathers. I half expected A&E, the cable network that brought us the film this week, to insert a little crawl at the bottom, THEME ALERT! THEME ALERT!, just in case you missed The Big Point.
Ah, the season of political biography is here again. It seems like only last year that the world was endlessly reliving the pasts of George W. Bush and John Kerry, in the great frothy fountain of journalistic profiles that burst from the blowhole of the media leviathan, and in the Hollywood spin-offs called biopics—the authorized and the unauthorized, the sloppy kisses and the attack ads, and all the rest.
It was only last year, but Americans live in an eternal campaign now, and journalists are to blame. Media people are political groupies at heart, and nothing fascinates them more than imagining that they live among giants, and actually get to know those giants personally, huddling in the corner after dinner to discuss the nuclear option and stem cells and the E.U.
Some new FDR/JFK/Reagan is always being teed up for the full operatic treatment. Bush isn't even six months into his second term, and we need fresh giant flesh. So we're feverishly reeling back again, tracing the mystic chords of memory or whatever you call the strange hackish behavior that generally ensues when news people and documentarians are retailing the life stories of might-be, could-be, and not-so-secretly wannabe presidents.
Right now, we're drawing yet again the life arcs of Sens. McCain and Clinton ("Heeding the Past As She Looks to the Future"—front-page Washington Post headline on Hillary Rodham Clinton from a few days ago). Never mind that these are two of the most well-known bios on the planet, and that it really isn't necessary at this point, so many long months from 2008, to revisit them. Political biography has a Groundhog Day quality—just tell that life story over and over, grind our little faces into the grandeur and horror of it all, and every time you do, act like it's the very first time the damn story's ever been told. A journalist friend of mine calls the McCain phenomenon The Ever Renewable McCain Boom.
This is not to take anything away from the authentic achievements of these people. In fact, I'd argue that the lives of McCain and Clinton are so rich and amazing, they deserve better than they get from most of the news folk and filmmakers who tell their stories. There's a lack of depth and texture to so much of the product, a hewing to ancient formulas and recipes, as if it's unthinkable to tell these stories in a new way. On the journalistic side, there are one or two salient points about each subject, and these points are repackaged endlessly yet transparently, like new, improved potato chips or breath mints. In a long McCain profile by Connie Bruck in the May 30 New Yorker, for instance, we come upon the observation, "The McCain alchemy derives, in large measure, from a widespread popular perception that he says what he believes."
Well, yes. I don't know that I've seen it called alchemy before. "Appeal," perhaps, and certainly "charisma." Those words being used up, we move on to "alchemy." Watch for the "essence" of McCain to emerge, and maybe even the "quiddity." But these, too, will come down to the old widespread popular perception that McCain ...
You can finish the thought. It's a magpie's game.
Am I being mean? I don't mean to be mean. The Bruck piece is a solid, well-reported effort, though sometimes I wish journalists were a little more open about their own experiences with the candidates—the swoons and revulsions these people inspire as one travels in the bizarre cult-like bubbles all of them inhabit. These pieces have an elaborate Victorian coyness to them that seems increasingly archaic. To get the journalist's "real" sense of the subject, we must decode the little "moves," the turns of language and subtle shadings that hold hidden messages.
Bruck writes: "After divorcing his first wife, Carol, who had waited for him through the years of captivity, in 1980, McCain married Cindy Hensley, 18 years his junior, and the only daughter of a wealthy beer distributor." Hmmm, the little voice in our head says, is she saying what I think she's saying?
In McCain's case, one journalist, Michael Lewis, has written terrifically candid stuff about the experience of being with the man and falling under his spell, but Lewis is the exception that proves the rule.
The wonderful/appalling thing about the Hollywood versions is that they're right out there with their own feelings, emotionally nude. In the modern political biopic, the hero will take a long walk with a friend or mentor—the Jack-and-Bobby moment—right around sunset, preferably along a body of water, with some woo-woo massage-center music rising in the background, often featuring drums and spooky faux-primitive singing. (The Kennedy era unfolded to Rodgers & Hammerstein; we have Enya.)
But that also gets old fast. What we really need is for somebody to inject some freshness into this exhausted old form, to come at the pol's life story in some unheard-of, gonzofied way nobody's ever tried before. Do I hear any bids from the blogging section?