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Dead of (Election) Night: Terrifying tales of campaign narratives run amok!


Skeletons in the closet! Bats in the belfry! Wolves in sheep's clothing! Pit bull-barracudas in Neiman Marcus clothing! Flying pigs in lipstick bursting forth from unlicensed plumbing fixtures! Befitting the sinister tone of season (political and scary), David Bordwell has published a brilliant essay he calls "It was a dark and stormy campaign," in which he examines the concept of "narrative," as it has come to be used in film and campaign circles. This is essential reading:

Clearly the presidential candidates have come to believe that what seizes the public aren't just policy views and promises. Now the campaigns want to tell stories in which the candidates are the protagonists. The life of Barack Obama, or Joe Biden, or Sarah Palin is said to be a story (usually "an American story"). According to Robert Draper's influential recent article ["The Making (and Remaking) of McCain"], John McCain's campaign has deliberately set out a series of "narratives": McCain endures suffering in Hanoi as a POW; he enters politics and fights for reform in government. Mark Salter, McCain's staff member and coauthor, has the responsibility of stitching incidents of the Senator's career into what he calls the "metanarrative" of McCain's life--rather as George Lucas presides over the Bible of the "Star Wars" universe.

The campaigns' efforts at representing narratives don't just amount to giving us backstory about the protagonists. Things get tricky when they try to present the ongoing campaign as itself a narrative. This involves planning a smooth cascade of events, such as during the party convention, when the suspense builds toward the climax of nomination. The problem of course is that events outside the candidates' control can force changes in the story line. During the recent financial meltdown, McCain's campaign would have preferred to create a dialogue about national security, and Obama's campaign was prepared to talk about the war and the squeeze on the middle class. Instead, each had to respond to swiftly changing events and rewrite the script every day.

The campaign itself is a narrative about competing narratives -- not just those of one candidate against the other, but a constant struggle for dominance over a multitude of shifting and evolving rival stories and players. One week Sarah Palin is the self-described pit bull in lipstick. Then, suddenly, she's the ruthlessly ambitious "rogue diva" with her eye set on the leading role in 2012. "Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington" turns into "All About Eve" in a single news cycle.

Bordwell keenly observes: "Like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, Obama and McCain are deeply concerned with fathers and how they shape sons."

As the son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, Obama (born in Hawaii -- a paradise both foreign and domestic), embodies an American Dream of reconciliation with the past and hope for the possibilities of the future. But his "black half" is also tied to a counter-narrative that portrays him as The Other -- shadowy, unknown (or unknowable), even "anti-American," a fringe figure with a dark past spent "palling around with terrorists."

As a Vietnam-era POW and universally acclaimed war hero McCain represents another American Dream image: the ruggedly independent, self-proclaimed "maverick" who isn't afraid to go against the grain, who can both embrace and defy his fellow-Republican president, George W. Bush, because he is his own man and goes his own way -- even though (as the Obama campaign constantly reminds us) that includes voting with Bush 90 percent of the time. Indeed, counter-narratives have emerged (many of which are collected in the blistering Rolling Stone exposé, "Make-Believe Maverick") that portray McCain as a character remarkably similar to the W. of Oliver Stone's "W." (and Jacob Weisberg's "The Bush Tragedy"): a spoiled child of privilege with a sense of entitlement; an underachieving son who never measured up to his prominent father; an erratic and hot-tempered reprobate known for carousing and womanizing, "youthful indiscretions" his reformed character now regrets.

All these narratives are subjective extrapolations from incidents in their protagonists' life-stories. Some are backed by a substantial amount of verifiable evidence and some are not. (See Politico's "Cover this! Inside the nastiest '08 rumors") Will the difference between rumor and fact matter to most Americans when they mark their ballots? Voters are most likely to go with the candidate they think makes them feel most comfortable -- whether that means someone with whom they would like to have a beer, or someone they feel is unlikely to endanger them by picking a bar fight over something stupid. "Trust" means different things to different people.

McCain has said his favorite film is "Viva Zapata!," Elia Kazan's 1952 picture with Marlon Brando as the Mexican revolutionary leader. But Bordwell detects darker shades of John Ford's 1955 "Mister Roberts" in McCain's autobiographical narrative:

... I couldn't escape the feeling that it traces, in a less light-hearted tenor than Ford's film does, the way in which Ensign Pulver becomes Mr. Roberts. [...]

Few speak of the old Barack Obama versus the new one, but the narrative of John McCain 2.0 has stuck. Mr. Roberts has become the captain himself--a man crumpled with vexation, the cranky officer he would have rebelled against at Annapolis. I suspect that some day a McCain biographer will construct a narrative that shows him to have become a tragic figure.

This suggests a parallel to another Naval officer from the movies: Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart in "The Caine Mutiny"). Is the Real McCain the confused paranoiac, obsessing over the missing strawberries, that we see on the stand during the court martial? Or is he the good man with limited faculties, trying to do his best with lousy support from his subordinates, that we hear about afterwards? And would you vote for either man for the office of President of the United States?

Maybe your view of a candidate comes down to what kinds of stories you like best. Bordwell describes Obama's 1995 autobiography, "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," as "a detective story," and McCain's 1999 "Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir" as "an adventure tale": "If McCain's plot is driven by honor and duty, Obama's depends on race and social responsibility." Both fit the universal mythological (and psychological) patterns for the hero's journey -- the quest to realize one's own identity and fulfill one's destiny -- that Joseph Campbell illuminated in "The Hero With a Thousand Faces."

Here are just a few of the political narratives and counter-narratives -- and narratives about narratives -- that have stood out for me this election season:

From the New York Times "The Making (and Remaking) of McCain" story Bordwell mentions above:

What campaigns peddle is not simply character but character as defined by story -- a tale of opposing forces that in its telling will memorably establish what a given election is about. In 2000, the McCain effort played like that of a smart and plucky independent film that ultimately could not compete for audiences against the Bush campaign's summer blockbuster. Four years later, in the race against John Kerry, Schmidt and the other Bush strategists had perfected their trade craft. With a major studio's brutal efficiency, they distilled the campaign into a megabudget melodrama pitting an unwavering commander in chief against a flip-flopper, set in a post-9/11 world where there could be no room for error or equivocation.

From David Brooks, New York Times, September 26, 2008:

Nonetheless, when people try to tell me that the McCain on the campaign trail is the real McCain and the one who came before was fake, I just say, baloney. I saw him.


This Brooks-endorsed narrative, the That's Not the Real McCain one, has been a real mystery story for me. In it, a shadow cabal of McCain "handlers" are using a lookalike False McCain to run a cynical, negative campaign that is unworthy of the Real McCain, who actually disagrees with it, but is being held in an undisclosed location and unable to speak for himself. The conspiracy has been deviously designed either to get the Real McCain elected or to not get him elected, I lose track of which, but the story is that the Real McCain is just heartsick about what they think he has to do to become president.

So, the Real McCain believers insist: It must have been so hard for him to keep hugging George W. Bush onstage at campaign rallies in 2004, except -- wait -- that wasn't him, it was the False McCain who did that. The Real McCain would never do what that guy did. The Real McCain, for example, called a press conference to stand up to Bush on the torture bill. Then the False McCain immediately backed down and signed off on a worthless "compromise" that left the definition of "torture" entirely to the president (the one the Real McCain was standing up to). Oh, the McCains. So many McCains. Those who remember the New Nixon (all the New Nixons) will find this uncannily familiar.

But the question arises: At what point do you cease to hold a candidate accountable for his own actions, or those of his robo-doppelgänger ("I'm the Real John McCain and I approve of this message"), and how do you figure out which is which when you're casting your vote? Purportedly it was the Real McCain himself who apologized for lying about his views on the display of the Confederate flag in order to win South Carolina primary votes in 2000, and who was hailed at the time as a storybook George Washington figure ("I cannot tella lie"). But how much of a Real Leader (or False Leader) can someone be if they can't control, or take responsibility for, their own campaign, or that of their unreal double, while the campaign is in progress? Wasn't Al Gore's failure to stand up to his p.r. consultants supposed to have accounted for why he presented such a miserable, waxen campaign image in 2000? Back then, butterfly ballots in Florida did not allow voters to choose between the Real Al Gore and the False Al Gore (or even between the False Al Gore and the Real Pat Buchanan). This year, rumor has it that swing-state voters will be allowed to choose between a Real McCain-Lieberman ticket and a False McCain-Palin ticket.

But beware, my friend, of the wrath of fans who feel betrayed by narratives that are overturned or go awry (cf. TV's "Heroes"). A new McCain counter-narrative has achieved dominance as more conservatives and Republicans (they are not synonymous, as detailed below) have held the Real McCain accountable for everything from the tone of his campaign to the choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate (no matter how much William Kristol would like to take credit for that masterstroke). Turns out the old McCain was the facade and the new McCain has been the genuine article all along. The Real McCain was False and vice-versa. Notice how Joe Klein at aims his language at the heart of the Real McCain narrative: "Real men don't hide behind robocalls. It is nowhere near honorable. But, my friends, I give you John McCain, 2008 edition -- John McCain for the history books."

Remember the one about how Obama needed to get mad, to get all Buford Pusser on McCain's mud-slinging ass, to fight back? That one peaked with the imaginary "West Wing" showdown after the second debate. Aaron Sorkin wrote, as President Bartlet, via Maureen Dowd: "GET ANGRIER! Call them liars, because that's what they are." That one peaked after the first debate and was history by the end of the third, while McCain sputtered and Obama refused to get riled. Yeah, I bought into the "Unforgiven" scenario, too, and I was wrong.

But the following may be the most fascinating counter-narrative I've come across in the last few months -- and I think it is the beginning of setting the historical record straight, going back to 1980. The story of American conservatism, through neoconservatism and Bush Republicanism (distinct phases, in my opinion) requires some corrective re-writing.

From Gary Kamiya, "The Republican shipwreck,", October 28, 2008:

Some conservatives have tried to argue that Bush betrayed true conservatism by running up a ruinous deficit and expanding entitlement programs like Medicare. They compare him unfavorably to Ronald Reagan, modern conservatism's patron saint. But this revisionism gets the historical record wrong. The truth is that Saint Reagan expanded entitlements, grew the federal government -- including a $165 billion bailout of Social Security -- and raised taxes. The right-wing myth of Reagan as an anti-government, anti-tax purist is just that: a myth. The same is true for his anti-Communism. Reagan talked a tough game, calling the USSR an "evil empire" and rattling his saber, but usually behaved pragmatically. When his ill-considered intervention in Lebanon failed, he wisely pulled U.S. troops out. In short, Reagan's ideology and his practice were often at odds.

The dirty little secret of modern conservativism is that Bush is more like "Reagan" -- the mythical Reagan, that is -- than Reagan himself ever was. Bush actually did what Reagan just said he was going to: He cut taxes for the wealthy, handed over the keys to the economy to corporate interests and deregulated everything in sight. His most glaring and destructive imitation of the mythical Reagan was his catastrophic decision to invade Iraq. Fatally, Bush really believed his own Churchillian rhetoric. He decided the fight against Islamist terrorism was an epochal showdown of good vs. evil -- and unlike Reagan, he proceeded to act militarily on this grandiose belief. (Yes, Reagan illegally tried to overthrow the Nicaraguan regime, but the Iran/Contra scandal that tainted his legacy wouldn't even make the Top Ten list of Bush's misdeeds.)

The Dubya narrative may have played itself out -- both as tragedy and farce. The moments that define Obama and McCain's public identities may already have passed, but the outcomes of their quest-narratives are just ahead...

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