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.