Friday, November 21, 2008

Everybody Knows the Trouble I've Seen

Joe Biden has been a Senator for 36 years. He has vast understanding of constitutional law and foreign affairs, among other topics. But his most important qualification for Vice President is that his wife and daughter were killed and two sons badly injured in a tragic auto accident in 1972. At least that is the impression you get from listening to Barack Obama and other Democrats as they tout Obama's choice for Vice President. By the same standard, Biden's second most important qualification appears to be that in 1988 he suffered two life-threatening brain aneurysms.

And just in case you think he hasn't suffered enough, Biden stuttered as a child.

John McCain is also one of the best members of the Senate and a sterling character in many ways. But if that were all he was, he wouldn't be running for President. Most voters couldn't tell you a thing about McCain's Senate record. But everyone knows he endured five years in a North Vietnamese prison. That fact is the cornerstone of his political appeal.

Back during the Democratic primary campaign, there was John Edwards. He had an ambitious plan for health-care reform, I believe, but I couldn't tell you a thing about it. We all knew two things about him: he (like Biden) lost a child in an automobile accident, and his wife had inoperable cancer. (Now we know a third thing about Edwards, which illustrates the peril of drawing too many conclusions from a candidate's life story as framed by the candidate and his or her campaign.) And, of course, there was Hillary Clinton. She never made an explicit issue of her personal troubles. She didn't have to, since we lived through them with her. Her role as the nation's officially wronged wife (who started out dissing Tammy Wynette and ended up standing by her man) was the basis of her political career.

It is perfectly legitimate for the voters to want to know more about a politician than just a list of his or her positions on the issues. We don't know what issues are going to be really important over the next four years. In November 2000, for example, no one could have predicted what happened in September 2001. We need to make a judgment about who this person who wants to be our next President is at a deeper level. And biography is a good way to do it.

As the political consultants say, a candidate needs a story. And the media seem capable of handling only one story: overcoming adversity. (In fact, they use the same story in profiling Olympic athletes.) This particular story has two morals. First, it says the candidate has the inner strength or the wisdom or whatever it takes to address the unpredictable challenges he or she will face if elected. Second, it suggests that the candidate will be able to empathize with voters and the adversities they face.

But there are different kinds of adversity. One kind goes back to the oldest of all political life stories: the one about being born in a log cabin. Rising from poverty to within grasp of being President clearly does say something admirable both about you and about the country where this can happen. Obama's story is a near perfect 21st century updating of the log-cabin myth.

Putting yourself back together and going on after a tragedy like the death of a child also takes admirable qualities. But, except at the most abstract level, these qualities don't say much about what it takes to be a good President. The truth is that when adversity takes the form of a child's death or a spouse's cancer or a spouse's cheating or even, to some extent, of being tortured in an enemy prison, it is the adversity that moves us more than the rising above it. Making it central to your campaign is more a matter of seeking empathy than offering it. You're asking for a pity vote. Or maybe it's more ghoulish than that. Maybe politicians are now held in such utter contempt that personal suffering is the only way they can prove their humanity.

When the media or a candidate's political allies--or sometimes even the candidate--suggest that a child's death or half a decade as a prisoner of war will make the candidate better able to feel the pain of American voters, this is really an insult to the candidate and to whatever inner strength got him or her through the challenges he or she faced.

Most American voters have never suffered this kind of pain, which is really outside the realm of politics in any event. Or it should be.

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