Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Choice

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Choice

It is, among other things, a tale of two cities. Or at least, that's how it starts. Not Chicago, not Phoenix, not Hanoi, nor even Washington. "Frontline: The Choice 2008" begins with the party conventions in the late summer of 2004. The Democrats gathered in Boston, one of the birthplaces of America, to reinvent their party and, they hoped, the nation. They would fail, but in that failure, they may have planted the seeds of their eventual success. How much of Obama's famous convention speech was hype, created after the fact by a media looking for The Next Big Thing? All I know is that I missed it, but upon arriving at my family's house to catch some convention coverage, my mother turned to me and said, "I just heard the future president speak." Obama evocatively, and shrewdly, stepped outside the partisan framework of recent elections to declare, "there is not a liberal America, or a conservative America, there is the United States of America!"

Meanwhile, the Republican gathering in New York City - wounded city, site of 9/11, but also big, bellicose, haughty - contained the seeds of division. Republicans lit into their opponent, cast the other side as unpatriotic and weak, and cultivated a sense of Red America rising up to crush Blue America (ironically, this was in the heart of Blue America itself). But though the party seemed united and boisterous in its quest to re-elect President Bush, there were seeds of division in the GOP as well. These were best represented by John McCain, a figure immensely popular with the public, but doubted and disliked by other Republicans. McCain strode onstage to deliver a martial, impassioned defense of his president focused on national security, but one can see in the tepid, strained faces of the audience that there's a disconnect. Nonetheless, McCain is present for a reason. Despite his dislike of Bush, despite his differences with the Republican Party, he has decided he wants to become the party's nominee for president the next time around. This is the first step in that direction.


For two hours, "Frontline" weaves between the past and the present, the Republicans and the Democrats, Barack Obama and John McCain. Both have incredible stories, from their unique biographies, to their unusual paths to power, to their uphill climbs in pursuit of their party's nomination. The show stops before the general election and does not document the race that's been unfolding for the past few months. It is instead about the path that brought us, and them, to this point and provides a fascinating document of the trials and travails of politics.

John McCain, as we are reminded, actually has been a maverick. It's easy to forget this now, with his mismanaged campaign, fidelity to conservative talking points, and companionship with the so-called "Winking Wench of Wasilla." But McCain's path to the Republican nomination included serious overtures from John Kerry to join his ticket in 2004, and actual meetings several years earlier where Ted Kennedy asked McCain to switch parties - and McCain listened. Think about that! McCain, after entering the Senate on his patriotic image as a Vietnam POW and then tarnishing his reputation with the Keating 5 scandal (in which he pressured regulators to ease off his friend and supporter, the corrupt Savings & Loans kingpin Charles Keating), had reinvented himself as a straight-talker and independent-minded individual. He challenged Bush (who had defeated his presidential bid in 2000 with a remarkably nasty campaign in South Carolina) on every front: taxes, torture, the war in Iraq (which he adamantly supported, but opposed the conduct of).

That convention in 2004 was, in some ways, the turning point. Slowly McCain began to inch back to the right, still taking on the president - his calls for Rumsfeld to resign happened in Bush's second term - but finding areas to agree and working to mend broken fences. He spoke at Jerry Falwell's university after calling the minister an "agent of intolerance." Confronted by Jon Stewart on this matter, McCain played cute and kidded around, but now the scene plays like the opening of an ominous rift. It's clear that McCain's becoming a bit uncomfortable, trying to appeal to the hip crowd and the fundamentalists simultaneously. (As one observer says, "McCain has demonstrated both a temperamental inclination and a real ability...to do things that are politically expedient and at the same time signal with a sense of irony and detachment that he doesn't really like doing it.") This conflict between irony and expediency is just one of many fissures in the increasingly untenable McCain persona.

McCain announced his campaign on Letterman, yet tried to re-run Bush's campaign from 2000. He had built his career and reputation as a maverick, but his best chance at winning seemed to come from positioning himself as the Establishment candidate, like Reagan, Bush, and Dole before him. He seemed to hope that he could straddle the yawning gaps between reform and the establishment, the Right and the center, the sobriety of a party standard-bearer and the rebel whom the press loved. But the strain was too much, and his campaign collapsed in early 2007 and pundits declared him dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Democrats did have an Establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, who did seem able to straddle the divide between change and comfort more easily. On the one hand, she was a woman and would be the first of her gender to ascend to the top of a presidential ticket. On the other, she was a Clinton, hearkening back to to the soothing 90s when peace and prosperity ruled the land. There was a minor thorn in her side, Barack Obama - that great speaker from the convention, an outsider by virtue of his race, youth, and transcendent appeal - but it was unclear what threat he'd pose to her chances. Conventional wisdom felt this was a dry run, that perhaps in 2012 or 2016 he'd be the front-runner.

But Obama's fresh face concealed an inner toughness; one person in this show calls him "the velvet glove on a steel fist." Obama's childhood - fathered by a Kenyan national and a middle-class white Kansan, raised by his single mother, dividing time between Hawaii and Indonesia, straddling divides wider than McCain's - left him rootless and in charge of constructing his own identity. He went to Chicago to become a community organizer, and then onto Harvard Law School where his right-wing, ultra-white Federalist Society classmates remember him more fondly than his left-wing African-American peers. They helped elect him as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review; even at this early stage, Obama is transcending racial and ideological divides, and basing his success on doing so.

Returning to Chicago, Obama became a politician - idealistic in tone and inclusive in outreach, yet also ruthless (knocking opponents' names off the ballot) and ambitious (taking on popular Congressman and former Black Panther Bobby Rush). The Rush race, which Obama lost, convinced him and his advisers that in fact, working class black nationalists were not his most natural constituency and that it was white progressives whose support he should cultivate. He was elected to the Senate in 2004 and immediately set his eyes on the presidency; his aides drew up a "2-year plan" which would place him the perfect spot to start running by early 2007.

The long slog of the primaries showed each candidate at their most archetypal. Obama could seem too laid-back, too cool to apply the pressure, but when things got tight and the clock was ticking, he'd deliver. He demonstrated the appeal of his call to unity, the skepticism of working-class voters (white, not black this time) towards his brand, and the tenacity and fierce intelligence that knew how to play the system and undermine opponents when necessary. He eked out a narrow victory against Hillary Clinton on the basis of all these factors, which had been a part of his political career from the beginning.

McCain meanwhile, ran his campaign into the ground, demonstrating an occasional inability to manage a team and unite different groups. But he also showed his dogged determination, renaming his campaign bus "No Surrender," doubling-down on New Hampshire, and hauling his 71-year-old self through town hall after town hall, until suddenly he emerged as the front-runner in an increasingly competitive, increasingly dissatisfying pack. But the hardcore conservative base was not biting and McCain's appearance at the CPAC conference after clinching the nomination met with boos and stony silence or discomfort from those who restrained themselves.

While this episode of "Frontline" ends with the choices of vice-president, the ensuing campaign has only confirmed its observations. What has pushed the race in Obama's direction is, in addition to outside events, a combination of factors emerging from his and McCain's personalities and styles. In the face of the economic meltdown, Obama remained cool and shrewd, demonstrating a finesse that impressed undecided voters while causing a few skeptics to grumble that he was playing it safe. McCain, meanwhile, went for broke, suspending his campaign and inserting himself into the bailout deliberations, to disastrous effect.

What's unfortunate about McCain's failures is that it highlights the tenuousness of his position rather than the distinctiveness he once cultivated. Gone is the charmer who'd hold court with reporters on his bus, tease Jon Stewart, and announce his candidacy on late-night TV. Now it's journalists instead of campaign crowds who find themselves chanting, "Bring Mac back!" In intermittent ways McCain still tries to assert his own style, but it satisfies no one. He refuses to discuss Jeremiah Wright, Obama's racially-charged Achilles' heel, but brings up scurrilous (and simultaneously less effective) accusations about Bill Ayers. He insists that he's not a Bush Republican, but fate has brought to the forefront the one area where he and the president most overlap: the economy. And having denounced the Religious Right as "agents of intolerance" to crowds of cheering independents, his only remaining audience is the same angry, jeering mobs he once scorned.

And then there's Palin. She was an attempt, I think, for McCain to crystallize his own persona: the one that was not coming across to either the base or the center. She was undeniably a conservative, yet also a reformer and a maverick. But before long, it was the former quality which came to the forefront (as well as an unvetted incompetence), dragging McCain further into the depths of what Jon Stewart had called "crazy base land." McCain had a choice to make around 2003 and he lashed himself to the mast of a sinking ship.

I don't know how he would have fared on a more independent route - it seems that no matter what Obama could have outflanked him - but at least he would have gone down with more dignity. He may not become President (though I think the outcome will be closer than some expect), but someday John McCain will make a great tragic figure in a movie. Meanwhile, Obama has played all his cards right. From that speech in Boston, his greatest asset was the ability to transcend, and having taken that to the national stage, his chances are strong to coalesce that appeal, in conjunction with the immense fatigue voters have with the Republican Party, into a victory.

And then, where do we go from Election Day? If McCain pulls off an upset, what is his future - what is the future of the party? How far does he go to upset the Republicans now that he (presumably) will not be seeking election ever again? I think he'll go pretty far, but the irony is that he's already planted the seeds of his own undoing. If he dies in office, he will have granted a new lease on life to the exact people he most despised: they will have their future, a president who is the most perfect embodiment of the American Right in U.S. history. What profits it for a man to gain the world but lose his soul?

And if Obama wins, the questions are even greater. Not in terms of policy or leadership qualities on which, despite the carping of critics, he has proven himself a man of substance. Rather, on that Obama persona, which up till now has been more of a campaigning strategy than a governing strategy - though the root of its appeal has been the promise of a governing strategy. He has spoken of uniting America but suddenly, for the first time in his career, he will have to act on his words, not in incremental measures, but in full-blown history-changing actions.

I believe Obama is up to the challenge, and worth the risk. I still have respect for John McCain, and if he had run a truly independent-minded campaign, with an articulate vision, and a spirit closer to his underrated nomination speech, I would be more amenable to his winning. Sadly, his extremely fragile position has leaned in the wrong direction, most disastrously in the selection of Sarah Palin, whom I believe - on the basis of her intellectual curiosity and personal demeanor more than her ideology - would take all of Bush's negative qualities and stretch them to their limits. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have been lifelong tight-rope walkers. Now, at the hour of utmost need, McCain has fallen from his perch and Obama remains, teetering on razor's edge. But the eyes of the country are upon him and we all wait with bated breathe to see if he can maintain his balance.

5 comments:

Tony D'Ambra said...

A powerful piece that has focused on the style of the candidates and their campaign, on the eve of an election that has profound implications not only for the US but for the global community.

As an Australian, I have a more sceptical view of how far populist politicians can take us, and Australians have a pretty jaundiced view of politics generally. I am less sure of an Obama victory. Race is still an issue and in the final moments before a vote is cast, I fear many voters will not honour their intentions - I hope am I am wrong.

One thing in your essay, and this is an issue for the campaign itself, there is little if any mention of policy. The stump speeches are all about preaching to the converted and cheer-leading, not outlining a clear and coherent vision based on a policy agenda. Obama is all about the rather vacuous feel-good "vision" and "change" things, while McCain and Palin hammer the pep-talk about closing the gap, and of course pushing the negative campaign buttons.

McCain is very weak on the economy and his foreign policy would be a disaster, and of course Palin is a loose cannon. Obama is charismatic, but beyond promising to get America out of Iraq, his platform is largely platitudes and he has no real track record to speak of, and I found his book, The Audacity of Hope, rather empty and self-serving. The grass-roots nature of his campaign is clouded by the presence of the principals of major lobbying firms on his campaign staff.

May the better man win...

MovieMan0283 said...

Tony, I have a similar skepticism though it's fairly sight - nonetheless talk of a cakewalk makes me nervous.

As far as policy, that was based on the documentary I was reviewing - which was pretty much focused on the candidates' biography. I tried to tie in discussion of the candidates' policies with the relevant doc reviews but found myself focusing more on their personalities here.

I disagree somewhat in that I do think policy has played a role in the election, one which is probably more apparent in the U.S. than elsewhere - digest form this election is very superficial indeed. It was not very deep discussion of policy (though when forced, Obama proved quite adept in this regard, McCain less so) but despite the nonsense talk of Bill Ayers and campaign warddrobes, there were some major issues addressed...well, major domestic issues anyway.

I see there being a somewhat complex relationship between the stylistic elements and the policy. Obama came under attack in 2007 & early 2008 for being light on specifics, but gradually he improved his stump speeches to make them less airy and more substantial and it seemed to me that his nomination speech erred almost too much on the side of substance.

I'm reading Audacity of Hope now and enjoying it but agree it is more focused on generalities than specifics - more vision than nitty-gritty. He became far wonkier as Hillary pushed him (I don't know how closely that race was covered in Australia) and as I see it, the policy is there, beneath the surface if anyone wants to look for it, but candidates often don't run with it, except in general terms.

Anyway, it's doubtful what can be accomplished given the situation we're in. If Obama can get his health care plan, or some sort of improved health care plan, through, that will be enough for me in terms of his domestic agenda - he will otherwise have his hands full with the financial crisis and tense global situation (which bizarrely quieted down long enough for him to get elected - other than Russia invading Georgia, 2008 will probably look in retrospect like an island in a sea of international turmoil).

Tony D'Ambra said...

Thanks MM. All we have to do now is wait.

The US election is big news here, with the last 18 months of the campaign being reported in detail. From the close of polling, mid-morning our time Wednesday, our major broadcasters will suspend normal schedules to cover the count non-stop. Our major daily broadsheet in Sydney has 5 reporters in Washington this week. I will be hooked into the BBC.

MovieMan0283 said...

I was thinking about posting a final post on Obama's speech and his promise and his risk, but instead I'll let this comment be my coda to the election.

First, the speech tonight had the power of a great, popular movie. Grandly orchestrated, with sentiment approaching hokum (that soaring music as Obama's multicultural, multigenerational ticket and family gathered onstage) yet genuine emotional depth (the picture of Jesse Jackson, a man who has often been very critical of Obama, openly weeping, was one of the most moving sights I've seen). It even had its stoic, downbeat counterpoint, with a very gracious, very dignified concession by John McCain, whom I've increasingly regarded as a tragic figure. I some ways, we could call the 2 hours between 10:30 and 12:30 the greatest movie of the decade.

As far as I'm concerned, this past decade has seen not just a political deficit, but a cultural one as well. There have been some good, and a handful of great, movies (though admittedly many remain to be seen by me). But where were the masterpieces - the Godfathers or Easy Riders or Citizen Kanes - which told great stories and also connected with the zeitgeist, the cultural milieu? In popular music, did we have any Beatles or Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan? Are they even possible anymore? Cinema, music, literature, art - none really seemed to be able to conjure up that heady brew of transcendence, popularity, and grand vision that was attained in the past. Perhaps we have become too fragmented, or too sheltered and diversified in a vast media cocoon?

Obama offers the promise of transcendent greatness, based in part on something we haven't seen in our politics OR in our culture for years: the possibility of unified deeply-felt shared experience. Whether he will acheive this greatness I do not know. It is admittedly vague and almost intangible, but he has already shown us two immense sources of strength.

We've seen The Great Symbol, the man who has a way with words, who connects with people, who is really the first true presidential candidate, the first public servant, of the 21st century in everything from his framing of issues to the way he marketed his campaign (can you think of another symbol as imaginative as the ubiqutuous O/sunset rising over a harvest field?). And yes, the first black president. That is huge, absolutely huge, and the most concrete way in which Obama's election was, no matter what we thought we expected, shocking and moving.

He has also shown, quite apart from this idealistic, transcendent appeal, a skill as a shrewd, intelligent, fiercely accomplished politician: The Great Campaigner, or The Great Operator. We've only seen him in this regard as a campaigner, but his performance was astonishing. So he is not only someone who can speak well, but who can get things done, at least in one sphere.

But while we've seen The Great Symbol and The Great Operator, we must await the Great President, which is all that really matters in the end. How will the symbolism of change play out in policy? How will his operative skills apply to internecine warfare and the attempts to bridge party divides and the inevitable downturns in public opinion?

Now, I voted for Obama because I took a rational look at his policies vs. McCain's, his demeanor vs. McCain's, not because of these larger-than-life qualities. But it's these qualities which make me excited about him and his possiblities, even as part of me remains skeptical and pragmatic about his prospects.

As for Obama's potential president greatness, this is where the big mystery lies because no matter what anyone says we really don't have any evidence, except words (and we all know how this can be betrayed or disappointed) as well as conjecture based on his other strengths, how he will operate in this arena.

Maybe then, this was just the trailer - if so, I hope the movie lives up to its promise.

Tony D'Ambra said...

A fitting and generous coda MM. A towering acceptance speech and a gracious concession from two decent men. What more could American democracy ask for? But as you say the campaign is over and the real work must now begin. I agree also that the zeitgeist of the past decade has lacked a deep artistic flowering, but we can only hope. Perhaps Fukuyama was partly right about the 'end of history'.