ccfinlay

Father of Our Country

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Oct. 7th, 2008 | 11:43 pm
mood: hopeful

So I'm watching the U.S. presidential debate tonight and it strikes me that both candidates are defined by their relationship to their fathers.

Stick with me for a minute. This is relevant.

McCain's father was an admiral--was, in fact, the admiral in charge of the Pacific forces during the time that McCain was a POW in Vietnam. His grandfather was an admiral too, and the youngest McCain was once a flyer based at McCain airfield, named for his grandfather. The father and grandfather were both great men. When John McCain's military career stalled, and it was clear that because of his temperament and record, he was never going to be promoted to the rank his father and grandfather achieved, McCain switched to politics.

I'll come back to that in a moment.

Obama's father was from Kenya. He came to the US with his American wife, to live the American dream. But he couldn't hack it, couldn't hack the cultural change or the responsibilities of being a father, and he abandoned his wife and son.

Now admittedly I have father issues of my own, so it's something I reflect on. But it's no stretch at all for the armchair political observer to see that these men's lives have been defined by their relationships with their fathers.

McCain, it seems to me, has something to prove to his father figure. If he can just get elected president, become Commander-in-Chief, he will outrank his father and grandfather, and prove to them once and for all that he is as worthy as they are. You can see McCain's eagerness to please military father figures in the obsessive way he invokes the name of General Petraeus. McCain refers to him as "this great general, one of the great generals in American history, General David Petraeus." McCain talks about how much he and Petraeus agree. He defers to Petraeus: "I don't think I would change the strategy [in Iraq] now unless General Petraeus recommended it." In fact, in the first debate, he mentioned Petraeus seven times by name and didn't mention his vice-presidential partner once. More telling, McCain's damning criticisms of his opposition include statements like "[Obama] never asked for a meeting with General Petraeus."

McCain is driven to prove something to his father figure: he wasn't just a bottom-of-his-class plane-crashing girl-chasing flyboy. He needs to prove that he can be the man his father was. He needs the approval of that father figure. And because his own father is dead, he's eager to get the approval of the closest stand-in he can find, General Petraeus.

Obama has something to prove also.

Barack Obama is trying to become the man his father couldn't be. Obama's father bailed out on his mother, so he stands beside her, even in spirit. When he talks about healthcare coverage for Americans, he mentions his mother dying at 53 of cancer and fighting to get the healthcare she needed. When he talks about making sure every American has a chance at education, he mentions the sacrifices his mother made to help him get a good education. Same thing with basic needs and food stamps. In all these ways, he's standing by his mother the way his father didn't. His father bailed out on his children, so Obama stands by his, taking care of them, providing for them, involving them in his life. You hear it in Obama's speeches, when he calls for black fathers to be held accountable to providing for their children. He is responsible and demands responsibility from others. And here's the biggest one: Obama's father bailed out on the American dream, so Obama pushes that dream to the limit. He shows that anybody in America can do anything. Even the son of an immigrant, raised on food stamps and scholarships, can grow up to be president.

I take it as a given that political candidates in America have personal issues. I don't think anybody goes for the highest office in this country unless they have the baggage to get them there. But this is the first time I can recall seeing two variations of the father baggage line up so clearly against one another.

McCain's campaign is failing in part because of its baggage. For one thing, you can never win the approval of somebody who's dead, even when you pick a surrogate. That's why McCain's campaign has a mixed message: you can't prove you're an independent "maverick" and fight for mass approval at the same time. Mavericks don't care if they win approval. Mavericks don't lead; they go their own way. McCain has to justify his differences from his father figure (by being a maverick), and at the same time he has to prove that he's as good as his father (by becoming commander-in-chief). There's a lot of contradictions built into that. And if McCain doesn't get elected president, he will never outrank his father. It's a tough storyline to live out.

Obama's message matches his baggage better. He can be a better man than his father was. He already is. He can stand by people, he can be responsible for providing for his own children, he can live the American dream. His catchphrases about "hope" and "change" are the storyline of his own life. Win or lose this election, Obama has already succeeded in being a better man than his father.

My own baggage about fathers colors my political lens this year. Trying to earn the approval of your absent father is made of fail. Being a better man, holding yourself to a higher personal standard than your absent father in your own character and conduct is all you can do.

When I vote this year, my teenage boys will come to the poll and the voting booth with me. Because I want them to see how America is supposed to work. Because I believe that the relationship between fathers and sons matters. That, for men, we are defined by the way we react to the father figures who are, or aren't, in our lives. Because I want them to see that these two candidates distinguish their fitness for this office by the way they've carried the baggage of their fathers.

N.B. I'm not really interested in a discussion about the comparative merits or other critiques of the candidates, so I'm screening comments and will delete anything from anybody that looks like it's picking a fight. If you don't like it, and you don't want to talk about fatherhood, go post on your own blog.

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Comments {59}

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Comfort me with Apples

(no subject)

from: tanaise
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 05:34 am (UTC)
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Good analysis!

While I have a dad who was present, in a lot of other ways, he was absent, and I still try and make him pay attention to me, even when I know it's pointless or unnecessary (I know he loves me, but i need to stop trying to get him to prove it, for example.) When I think about my childhood, I have all these memories of things like, my dad coming home from work, and us tearing into the kitchen to see him, or going grocery shopping with him, or him making us dinner. And the reason I remember these things, and all the time we spent with my mom was of course that these times were rare and fancy. Which says something right there. Realizing that at some point when I was growing up was an important moment--there was nothing better or worse about shopping with my dad, and it was unfair to my mom to attach that much importance to it.(Of course, he also took me to vote with him, just to tie it back into the original topic.)

Since I'm not a guy, I don't think much about guy relationships with their dads, past looking at my brothers and their relationships, but I do look at how the other girls I know interact with their fathers. And it can get kinda interesting--'normal' families have girls who grow up loving their moms, hit puberty, and push away, and towards their dads. One of my friends is a perfect example of this--fights with her mom all the time, adores her father. Me, my dad left the family when I was 13, right when I should have been pulling away from my mom. And I think that left me three ways to go--1.) completely towards my dad, and very openly upset with my mom (and had my dad not left my mom *for* someone, that could have been possible. She doesn't understand him, she doesn't deserve him, it was her fault.) 2.) towards other men for a replacement, and into bad relationships and possible teenage pregnancy, etc, or 3) and the one I went with, back towards my mother. So I have a good relationship with my mom, and a complicated one with my dad. I have other friends with emotionally distant dads who have the same increased affection for their moms, distrust of their dads. What's probably most interesting is that these are not bad guys--they're in the family, they didn't leave the family to starve or abuse the kids or drink or anything overt like that.

Thinking about it, I realize that during the primaries I was probably leaning slightly towards Hillary, if I'd been forced to choose (I couldn't vote in the primary, because it's not as simple as 'who would be better for this job," it's 'who could do this job *and* appeal to the most people?' and I couldn't answer that question) because she's always seemed like a good mom, and I suppose I believe the skills would transfer over well. And I would say that if I paid any attention at all to politics (I've known who I'm voting for all along, so it's not something I paid attention to this time around.), I would look at how the women in the campaigns acted. Seriously, not that I would ever be pro-Huckabee, but his wife is pretty cool, particularly for a conservative politician's wife. (Newsweek actually covered the spouses of the candidates in some depth during the primaries, which was neat.)

And now I'm just babbling, so I'm going to bed and probably continuing to think about.

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purdypiedad

(no subject)

from: purdypiedad
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 05:41 am (UTC)
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Not gonna nitpick. Just gonna cheer you on. This was a great post, Charlie.

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Julia

(no subject)

from: ryuutsurugi
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 06:41 am (UTC)
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Thank you for posting this. It's definitely a different perspective than I've seen recently, and written clearly and without the normal political flaming that seems to be so common. As someone who is voting for the first time, I often feel as though I'm seeing the same arguments over and over, and it's frustrating when I want to read beyond them. I appreciate seeing a different take on the election.

And yes, I do agree that people who run for high political issues have some sort of personal issues in their pasts. I'm hoping that in this case the winning candidate will use their past to lead the country in a better direction rather than invading a country for daddy.

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cathschaffstump

(no subject)

from: cathschaffstump
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 06:50 am (UTC)
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Well, I'm impressed with the insight of this whole entry.

Did you notice how Obama brought up McKiernan, and McCain avoided the general in charge of Afghanistan entirely, instead opting to celebrate Petraeus again? Because "loser" generals are not good surrogates for the man who wants to be better than his father?

Wouldn't therapy cost McCain a lot less?

Catherine

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dsmoen

(no subject)

from: dsmoen
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 06:58 am (UTC)
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Very interesting, thanks for posting your perceptions on this.

Mine's much more lowbrow: Travolta could so play McCain. They have a similar facial structure (age aside) and similar gait and mannerisms. But then I only saw a couple of minutes of the debate. Yoga class called!

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Royce Day

(no subject)

from: jeriendhal
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 10:16 am (UTC)
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Good points all.

I came to a conclusion a long time ago, well before my father passed away, that I was never going to measure up to him. He had been so much, a radio technician for the OSS, then an investigator for the FCC travelling around the country (once, cruising the edge of Baja California in a navy blimp listening for illegal transmitters) , a tinkerer, a computer programmer (in BASIC, but he made his own spreadsheets), the household handyman and father to myself and my two sisters, that I came to the conclusion that my life was never going to be as interesting as his.

What I did come away with was a keen appreciation of his attitude towards life. He was the consummate Midwesterner, quiet and unlikely to ever toot his own horn (I heard most of the stories above very late in his life, mostly at my mother's prompting). He and my mother had what I consider an ideal relationship. They were partners, who, when they argued over something never did it in anger and always held the deepest respect and love for each other. I never doubted that love they felt for each other for a moment, and never doubted his love of me, even on the rare occasions when he expressed frustrations that I wasn't doing more with my own life.

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Stone of stumbling and rock of offense

(no subject)

from: wordweaverlynn
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 10:44 am (UTC)
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Great post with a lot of insight.

Looking at recent political history, there are even more father issues. Bill Clinton was a posthumus son of a traveling salesman. Although he never knew his real father, he faced down his abusive stepfather and then changed his name to honor the man (he was born Blythe).

Young Clinton's desire to protect his mother and brother while staying close to his stepfather became a pattern of being a knight in shining armor to the helpless while still seeking the respect and love of the powerful. Some people call it waffling, but it made him an effective politician.

Dubya's father issues are almost a national joke. He invaded Iraq just like Daddy. He even killed the man who was after his father. "My name is Inigo Bushoya. You tried to kill my father. Prepare to die." But there are a lot more nasty issues going on there. Some are eerily similar to McCain's: Dubya is the fuck-up, smartass son of a man who was very successful in the world. Bush II wasn't a hotshot pilot shot down in battle, but he could land on the deck of an aircraft carrier wearing a flight suit and proclaim, "Mission accomplished." And he won a second term, which is more than his father did.

I too have father issues -- see icon.

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it's a great life, if you don't weaken

(no subject)

from: matociquala
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 10:58 am (UTC)
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There's a social theory going around that conservatives (in general) subscribe to the metaphor of country as a stern patriarchal institution (the scary distant father) and liberals subscribe to the metaphor of country as an institution of mutual support. Just like families.

It all depends on what you think Daddy is for.

I know which sort of family I would rather live in...

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purdypiedad

(no subject)

from: purdypiedad
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 04:42 pm (UTC)
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Dooode. I think you nailed it.

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Jill Myles

(no subject)

from: irysangel
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 11:26 am (UTC)
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I thought this was a great post. Well done!

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silk_noir

(no subject)

from: silk_noir
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 11:34 am (UTC)
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Charlie, this isn't a post, it's an essay. Wish you'd send it in somewhere. Very, very nicely done, sir.

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Jeanette

(no subject)

from: eudaimonia
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 11:35 am (UTC)
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This is brilliant and insightful. Thank you. I think you are right.

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Hannah

(no subject)

from: buymeaclue
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 11:46 am (UTC)
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Nothing useful to add, but: fascinating. Thank you.

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Al Bogdan

(no subject)

from: albogdan
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 11:46 am (UTC)
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Great post and comments. Very accurate observations there, Charlie.

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karen_w_newton

(no subject)

from: karen_w_newton
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 12:32 pm (UTC)
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One reason I used to have some respect for John McCain (before he turned into an ambitious lunatic who foisted Sarah Palin on an unsuspecting America) was that he took responsibility for dumping his first wife. Now that he's trying to win over people who don't believe in evolution, somehow that never gets mentioned.

The father thing is interesting and true, I think, but what about the reverse—the ambitious father who craves success through his son. Joseph Kennedy, Sr., anyone? I sometimes wonder if George Washington would have been so ready to reject kingship if he had a son to follow in his footsteps.

And I want to make a prediction. If McCain loses (fingers crossed!), Palin will either run for the Senate or get a lucrative talk show contract. Either way, McCain has a lot to answer for.

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N. K. Jemisin

(no subject)

from: nojojojo
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 12:39 pm (UTC)
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This is interesting, and I love the idea of bringing your sons to the booth with you. Go you as a dad!

But isn't everyone the sum of his/her parents, ultimately? As a psychologist, back when I did personal-social -- before I realized it was driving me crazy and I switched to career counseling -- I spent half my time unraveling the life stories of my clients, figuring out how their relationships in the past (primarily with parents and siblings) had screwed them up/motivated them in the present. A lot of times my job was simply to reflect to them on how a lot of what they were doing was driven by the need for parental approval, or schadenfreude, etc. Very rarely (maybe never) did personal problems or positive motivations appear in a vacuum.

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C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 09:32 pm (UTC)
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But isn't everyone the sum of his/her parents, ultimately?

I don't think there's that much causal determination. I think parents have an effect, particularly while you're young. And somewhere along the way free will lets you change the course of your own destiny. People make choices. By the time we're adults we have a significant measure of control over how we react. The kind of work you did--helping people understand the sources of their actions and motivations--is really important to giving people more control. Two people, with similar personalities and advantages, put in the same circumstance, can still choose to do two different things with the experience. We see that all the time.

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Christopher Kastensmidt

(no subject)

from: ckastens
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 12:54 pm (UTC)
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Great post, thanks for sharing!

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Amy Sisson

(no subject)

from: amysisson
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 01:10 pm (UTC)
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I just wanted to say thanks for the thoughtful post. It was an angle I hadn't considered before.

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Rae Carson

(no subject)

from: raecarson
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 01:17 pm (UTC)
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You're so cute when you're brilliant.

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Alex Wilson

(no subject)

from: alexotica
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 02:55 pm (UTC)
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Great post. I similarly noted the parallel mentions of absentee fathers (and dealt with same growing up), but I think you've nailed it. Thanks.

Alex.

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Steve Nagy

(no subject)

from: stevenagy
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 03:18 pm (UTC)
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I think another comparison is one of responsibility versus competition. It seems Obama wants government to set an example on what's right and wrong. Whereas McCain favors a contest, with his ideas about free market health care being the example that scares me the most.

A support system balanced against a philosophy that promotes winners and losers.

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barbarienne

(no subject)

from: barbarienne
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 06:10 pm (UTC)
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Contest indeed!

No matter how noble the cause, ultimately military conflict is about competition: there is a winner and a loser. Rare is the win-win scenario in the military. The military is what you use for a win-[whichever] when you can't get a win-win via diplomacy.

Growing up in that environment must surely color how McCain sees the world.

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Erin Cashier

(no subject)

from: therinth
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 03:30 pm (UTC)
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I never thought of it that way -- i like it.

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Clint Harris

(no subject)

from: wendigomountain
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 03:35 pm (UTC)
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This was great stuff and has illuminated this entire election in different ways for me. Very interesting.

However, I can't help but think either way we're in trouble. I mean look at what Spielberg and Lucas have done to Indiana Jones and the Star Wars movies by foisting their daddy issues upon those stories? And that was just a few two hour movies! Not a whole damn country!

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(no subject)

from: pats_quinade
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 04:41 pm (UTC)
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That's a fascinating take on it. So much of what we do in life is defined by our parents. I'm seeing it on both sides of my family right now, actually -- how grammie and papa's relationship affected my mother, how my grandfather's death when my dad was just 13 affected his whole family, and how both my parents affected my sister. Families passing on coping mechanisms and reactions, children trying to emulate or fight against their own upbringing, all of it.

Not me, though. I'm fine.

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crimini

(no subject)

from: crimini
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 04:52 pm (UTC)
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Interesting and thoughtful post, here. And I can see where McCain is losing--because, yes, you can't win approval from someone who is dead. Obama isn't trying to win approval from his absent father, he's just stepping up and being the man his mother and grandparents showed him he could be. And there's a huge difference between trying to live up to the expectations of someone and stepping in to take personal responsibility for one's own destiny.

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C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 09:26 pm (UTC)
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Yes, that's the way it seems to me too. And that's why it seems to me there's a huge difference between these campaigns.

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Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero

(no subject)

from: dragonlady7
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 05:00 pm (UTC)
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Fascinating. (Here via deannahoak).

Yet more amusing in light of the recent argument I had with my father over the whole campaign. My father is a Vietnam vet and feels he must vote for McCain based almost solely upon that. But our whole relationship, since I was two and asking him why time only progressed in one direction, has been based upon logical discussions, even arguments, so I expect this will go interesting places.
(I suppose I'm lucky, seeing all this, in that my "daddy issues" seem to consist mostly of wanting to have logical arguments about everything with everybody. It gets tiring, but I haven't, oh, gotten thousands of people killed.)

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