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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 {57}

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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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Paul

(no subject)

from: pabba
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 05:08 pm (UTC)
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Wow, thanks for this, Charlie. A fascinating look at both sides.

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Sylvia

(no subject)

from: sylvia_rachel
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 05:57 pm (UTC)
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What a great reading. (Also here via deannahoak.) Gives me a whole new perspective on what has struck me as a certain frantic-desperate feeling to McCain's campaigning.

I have the Obama kind of father baggage, myself -- which may be why, even aside from my more rational views on their policy platforms, Obama's general attitude and personal history appeal to me while McCain's kind of make me go Um, what?

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barbarienne

(no subject)

from: barbarienne
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 06:06 pm (UTC)
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This is why you are a writer, and a good writer at that. Writers need to be able to understand complex, subtle motivations.

Crom love ya, Charlie, this is why you are one of my favorite people. :-)

And I should say that even those of us who have (or had) great, present dads still think about their approval. I have the job I have now (and yes, I enjoy it!) at least in part because I know how thrilled my dad would have been for me to take this job. I took the job because yes, it was the right move and the right job, but I got over the terror of relocating because I knew Dad would have encouraged me to take the leap for this job. I had to encourage myself past the fear, in effect becoming my own stand-in for him.

Aw phooey, dude, now I'm crying. At work. :-P

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C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 09:23 pm (UTC)
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Your dad was freaking awesome. I feel very lucky that I got to meet him and have dinner with him.

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S.K.S. Perry

(no subject)

from: sksperry
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 06:48 pm (UTC)
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You suck!!

*Not really--I just don't want to see you getting all full of yourself.

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C. C. Finlay

(no subject)

from: ccfinlay
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 09:22 pm (UTC)
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Ha!

Tell me I'm not a man and don't know how to be a good father, just for the full treatment.

Rae and I are thinking about coming to Ad Astra next year, if we can make the budget work out.

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(no subject)

from: sarah_prineas
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 08:38 pm (UTC)
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This is a fascinating take on the election, Charlie. It's interesting how you're making sense of this by making a narrative out of it, a story we've heard before. And it really does make sense.

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kelly_swails

(no subject)

from: kelly_swails
date: Oct. 8th, 2008 09:45 pm (UTC)
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Huh. Yeah, I hadn't thought of it in this election, but yeah. You're on to something here.

And I second silk_noir: you should submit this somewhere.

During both of W's elections I talked about his daddy issues, but most of my political friends poo-poohed it. They didn't take seriously the notion that someone would run for president to garner their father's attention. I maintain my position.

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