Notes on the 2008 election


John McCain
John McCain is no Baby Boomer. His candidacy for President is a culmination of a kind of pilgrimage – an old fashioned Protestant pilgrimage as told in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

McCain’s “slough of despond” was himself – angry, adolescent, acting out, irresponsible, self-referential. He came out of that persona under torture and became, as he said, a different person. Service to country gave him purpose and personal identity.

I take him at his word.

But his “conversion” experience was rough – torture in a Communist prison. Unlike two other men who were similarly irresponsible and self-referential (one also angry, alcoholic, adolescent, given to acting out and pouting braggadocio), McCain went to war. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush dodged military service.

McCain’s wartime suffering provided him with character. This was a stroke of fortune as elections are largely about character, not issues.

When McCain speaks of “country first”, of placing civic responsibility above service of self, he is turning the clock back to a pre Boomer culture. He is closer to the mythic stance of the Greatest Generation who fought a great war than he is to those who fought to stay out of the Vietnam War.

McCain is closing the chapter of Boomer culture in American history, putting that childishness behind us.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary’s address to the Democratic National Convention in Denver basically said it all: it was always about her: her ideas, her plans, her nagging the rest of us, her getting power to do what she wants because she wants to.. Hillary is a Boomer – cold at her core and self-referential; spoiled and arrogant, insincere in her claims to fellowship with the rest of us, keen to make money and live the good life, put upon by mean-spirited social enemies.

Sarah Palin

Here is a find; an original; another Andy Jackson come from the frontier to take no prisoners. We have seen the arrival of a person who will be in national politics for a long time to come.

She will give Hillary a run for the money and, I would guess, will outclass Hillary in the coming years. Hillary is a whiner while Sarah is a doer.

It is also a generational transfer of style: from the Boomer Hillary to the post-Boomer Sarah.

Palin does have a cause larger than self, though many of us do not value the leadership to be offered by sectarian passion as one of a righteous, and therefore chosen, few.

While a fixation on self leads to corruption in power, a fixation on cause leads to intolerance and repression of others. An ideology is really just another kind of special interest; it is not always a stand in for the common good.

The Backwoods

McCain and his chosen running mate Susan Palin are throwbacks to another kind of American politics, one we haven’t seen in a while. It is frontier populism – Andrew Jackson style. Jackson was very like McCain today – a warrior with a thin skin and an erratic drive to act. Jackson got angry as McCain can. Jackson was out to bring down elites and special interests. Jackson took on the financial elite of his time; McCain has taken on the lobbyists and the money power in our politics.

Both men, and Palin, carry into politics the suspicions and fears of the frontier loner who must defend his or her life and property from intrusion.

The sub-cultural strain in American life here is the Scotch-Irish tradition of toughness and the rugged individual – solitary and devoted to work, family, God and country.

Sarah Palin’s analogy of hockey moms with Pit-bulls says it all about the Scotch-Irish. They gave us Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston., the Hatfields and McCoys, country music, Hillbilly style. They made up the yeomen of the backcountry who fought for the Confederacy, didn’t like immigrants or African-Americans and so joined the Ku Klux Klan, but they do like guns. They are our rednecks and cowboys. They are the white cultural demographic of the red states – mostly southern and western.

Harry Truman; who was invoked at the Republican Convention as a predecessor in leadership style for Sarah Palin, was a kind of Scotch-Irish independent cuss. George W. Bush modeled his Texas persona more on the Scotch-Irish ideal than on the gentry, old-family, reserved Yankee, country-club, manners of his Connecticut born father.

The Scotch-Irish have guts, but maybe not wise judgment. They are better soldiers than statesmen. I have a lot of them in my family tree by the way.

Experience and Leadership

What is leadership anyway? Command and control or value-based inspiration?

The Republican National Convention certainly provided a clear and consistent vision of what we need in a leader – a commander in chief.

The model, ironic for a party that doesn’t like big government, is one of force and autocracy – a lonely “decider” giving orders to obedient subordinates who only execute.

It is the code of the Light Brigade in the Crimea War: “into the valley of death rode the six hundred – ours not to reason why”

John McCain, we are told, has what it takes: character and experience to give orders and protect us from others. Sarah Palin too has that kind of personality – a pit-bull with lipstick.

Barack Obama, by contrast, is portrayed as inadequate, untrustworthy, because he has not been tested in the fires of command, under pressure, being an executive.

But wait a minute – is this really the essence of good leadership, this somewhat bully-boy stance of haughty “damn the torpedoes; full steam ahead” toughness.

Custer had a lot of that and look what happened to him.

The great modern Republican Dwight Eisenhower was not picked to command the allied forces in Europe because he was autocratic. Patton was that way and got passed over. Patton’s role was leading troops in combat; the supreme commanders job was to manage and alliance and get everyone to do their job on time and in the right way. Ike was a diplomat and conciliator. Kind of like George Washington as a matter of fact.

In the Civil War, McClelland was the martinet but slovenly Grant won the war.

Before we get enthusiastic about “experience” in a candidate, we need to first think about the job description: what skills does being president require?