My friend Scotus sent out an e-mail last week linking to this Commentary article, “Honor Versus Unity.” He suggested each of us propose an earlier “type” for McCain and another for Obama. He was thinking Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson. The first response from another colleague was Grover Cleveland and Robespierre.
Laurence D. Cooper argues “the most compelling aspect of each candidate is his life story.” This reinforces my belief – we love narratives and especially in chaos: narratives help us connect dots, make sense of our lives. A Wonk’s expertise is limited.
My first response (and as my friend said, ah, the simple one) was to think of McCain in terms of John Adams; both can fall into self-righteousness that can be unattractive but is seldom self-serving. Placing “clean government” above the First Amendment is not only heretical, it demonstrates a lack of proportionality. And the two have similar views on partisanship:
McCain’s political affect is, in the end, grounded in non-partisanship, though of an unusual kind. His is not the non-partisanship of the straddler, who fears giving offense; nor that of the pragmatist, who leaves it to others to concern themselves with ends and principles. Rather, McCain seeks to rise above partisanship by going beneath it, by exemplifying and appealing to ancient ideals of personal honor. McCain’s appeal is, therefore, essentially pre-partisan.
Cooper considers Obama’s “post-partisan” approach as
post-historical. While the lessons of history—what they can teach us about the dangers we face—are central to McCain’s worldview, they play very little role in Obama’s. For him, history is less a source of wisdom about the constancy of human nature than it is a tragic horror that must be overcome, just as a traumatic childhood must be overcome. The tale history tells is one of oppression and injustice, and its tendrils extend into the present like weeds, interfering with the proper reordering of society.
Cooper summarizes Obama’s approach: “‘The world as it should be’ will bear little resemblance to anything that has preceded it.” Of course, that implies my friend Scotus, deeply immersed in Catholocism, proposes a game that doesn’t work if Obama is right; we who are, at least for parts of each semester, immersed in the Puritans, find such comparisons familiar and sometimes useful.
Of course, Obama rewrites history; he sees himself, this moment, as transcending it. McCain respects it and its uses. Cooper sums up those differences, reminding us of issues we often discuss:
Recall now the similar titles of the respective memoirs of the two candidates. Both evoke something timeless, but in wildly and instructively different ways. McCain’s title is Faith of My Fathers. It suggests that we must live within a tradition guided by the permanent things, the things that do not change. Obama’s title is Dreams from My Father. It implies that we must focus our minds on what has not yet been. McCain evokes tradition. Obama evokes transcendence. And this is the metaphysical difference between them, with profound implications for the policies each would enact were he to be elected President.
McCain’s confrontational approach arises from his view that the basic sources of injustice are inherent in human nature, but that injustice can be overcome by men and women of honor performing acts of heroism that will change the world for the better. Obama’s belief in “soft power” arises from his contrasting view that the sources of international conflict, though tenacious, can be overcome by an appeal to something even deeper in human nature—if not quite natural goodness, then something like a hunger for respect that turns violent only when we refuse to satisfy it.
To McCain, history describes the nature of man – complicated but universal, nuanced but eternal. Obama’s approach emphasizes the unique; he is romantic and assumes a blank slate. His is the optimism of the fortunate fall. Well, maybe. Of course, the romantic (like all of us) is susceptible to that great vice, pride.
(By the way, our colleague was trained as a priest and became a marine; he ferried the dead and injured from the Beirut barracks bombing. While I don’t know him well enough to predict his positions, the training he clearly treasures of those two disciplines, as well as such experiences as becoming a youthful widower and now well into a second marriage, have influenced analysis often surprising but always thoughtful. I would like to think, however, that Robespierre is more hyperbole and playful than carefully considered – that is, right. Wouldn’t we all?)