Being There

How Obama, Clinton and McCain became this season’s must-see TV

Illustration by Eddie Guy

Long before the Democratic presidential race reached an abrupt denouement on May 6, the night of the Indiana and North Carolina primaries—in the same way a miniseries suddenly ties up two or three episodes’ worth of loose ends in 15 minutes—I was well on my way to becoming the Chauncey Gardner of the 2008 election. Like Peter Sellers’s idiot savant in Being There, I like to watch…and watch…and watch. By February it was an obsession, driving my ten-year-old around the bend. “Not Chris Matthews!” he bellowed every time I touched the remote. But if you’re a political junkie, this campaign has been the veritable French Connection, and even if you aren’t, you may find it difficult to resist anyway. My Republican mother, with whom I stopped discussing politics before the last presidential race, has been desperate to talk about Barack Obama. She’s impressed to the point of openly musing about voting for him, though six more months of indoctrination by Fox News should take care of that. Whatever your politics, anyone short of an Ann Coulter psychosis can see this is the election of a lifetime and admire it on those terms; I’m sitting in a Starbucks at the moment, and people all around me are talking about it. Not only have the big issues of the last couple decades reached critical mass, but the cast of characters is unbeatable.

It’s unusual when a presidential election has one interesting nominee, let alone two. By interesting I don’t mean the drama of the race or what the candidates stand for or even the biographies involved. I mean that the people are complex, defined by contradictions they themselves can’t reconcile and secrets they themselves don’t know. Sometimes even if the race itself is boring, with the national stakes modest and the outcome predictable, the candidates can be real pieces of work. The 1996 election pitted a Midwestern war hero—who crawled back and forth across an Italian battlefield in World War II with a mangled arm in order to rescue his fellow soldiers, and whose wound ran like a fault line through his psyche for the rest of his life—against a silver-tongued, trailer-trash Rhodes scholar who became the Elvis Presley of his political generation in all the right and wrong ways. Bob Dole and Bill Clinton were characters out of a Robert Penn Warren novel, which you can’t say about most of the men whose rise is predicated on how colorless they are: the Bushes, Kerry, Dukakis, Mondale, Ford.

Nothing about the three dominant figures this year is colorless. They’re the stuff of pulp archetypes. They include a flinty, aging onetime prisoner of war uneasily navigating the demands of expediency and his own sense of honor that he prizes above everything, whose party nominated him in a rare spasm of sanity only when all the other options exhausted themselves; a charismatic young African American street organizer raised by a teenage mother from Kansas and deserted by a father from Kenya, coming out of nowhere to electrify the nation with a message of unity; and a steely, determined woman senator whose career in part was born out of an affair her president husband had with a 21-year-old who flashed her thong at him in the White House. Can you make this up? Well, yes, but it wouldn’t be as good. There hasn’t been a triangle this compelling since the Adams-Jefferson-Burr smackdown of 1800. That they’re all members of the Senate, condemned by the Constitution to close quarters and institutional tribalism, only contributes a kind of elegant proscenium on which the epic struggle has unfolded.

Who the hero of the story is depends on what story is being told. Is it the perennial fable of the last hurrah? Then Arizona senator John McCain, who will be nominated by the Republican Party in St. Paul in September, is your protagonist, the warrior in winter beset by jackals on all sides—upstarts and dragon ladies among the opposition, hacks and a deeply unpopular president among his so-called allies, and a horde of issues as unyielding to his principles as his principles are to the issues. Is it a tale of vindication? Then New York’s Hillary Clinton, emerging from the rubble of a humiliating marriage to lay claim to a destiny she denied herself years ago to accommodate a faithless husband, is the tableau’s central figure, tragic for how that vindication has been thwarted. In a sexist society it’s tempting to see Clinton as a victim, but like all tragic figures she’s been complicit in her downfall. Her palpable sense of entitlement reflects both hubris and shortsightedness, which is why the campaign never planned beyond Super Tuesday, because it assumed it didn’t need to. More consequentially, in a single Senate vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq, cast for the most politically calculated reasons, Clinton lit the long six-year fuse that burned down to her candidacy and blew it up.

Clinton’s support of the war provided the rationale for the opposition that would undo her, but whether the opposition needed a rationale is another question. The third in the triad, Illinois’ Barack Obama, is the unlikeliest prospect for president since Lincoln. A half-term black senator no one had heard of four years ago and who one out of seven Americans still thinks is a Muslim, whose name sounds like a cross between the world’s most notorious terrorist and a dictator we hanged 19 months ago, he would seem an amateur among pros until you remember he’s beaten the most famous woman in America, who had at her disposal the most powerful Democratic organization of the last quarter century and who six months ago was the prohibitive runaway favorite to be her party’s nominee, with every advantage, including the name and the numbers, the money and the machine. Finally the story of the 2008 election may be that most classic of narratives, the underdog saga. From the outset Obama has been the story’s X factor, precisely the “roll of the dice” that President Clinton got in trouble for calling him; neither Clinton nor his critics took into account that rolling the dice is exactly what many Americans are ready to do. Obama dominates the story and, win or lose, transforms it in the same way he professes to transform politics. If you believe he is a figure of destiny, then McCain is the entrenched old guard to be overcome. If you believe Obama is empty rhetoric, too slick by half, then McCain is a pillar, holding back the forces of hysteria that sweep the Republic.

There’s no doubt that since the Iowa caucus in early January, Obama’s following has been delirious if not messianic, to the point of making any rational person nervous.  The dry electronic winds of television only fan that fire, whipping it one way and then the next. For two months TV was besotted with Obama, until, as a kind of correction—and sensing that Clinton had momentum by virtue of her own tenacity and Obama’s careless ruminations on working-class whites in times of desperation—it turned sharply against him. This bipolar behavior reached an extreme one night during a debate in Philadelphia when ABC’s Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, neither of whom were wearing flag pins on their lapels, asked Obama, standing next to Clinton, who also wore no flag pin, why he wasn’t wearing a flag pin. Sometimes it’s just been that kind of campaign. That Obama didn’t ask them the same speaks either to a lack of petulance bordering on the supernatural or a missing chip in his political instincts. While the television press was consumed by such metaphors, even during Clinton’s surge of early spring it missed the larger story of her candidacy, which was how, albeit with less delirium or messianic fervor than Barack’s brigades, women were becoming as vested in Hillary, including women who never much liked her. That women’s scheduled historic breakthrough was preempted by a breakthrough even more profound, given four centuries of slavery and racial oppression, doesn’t mean many women aren’t rightly dismayed. Unless his instincts really are missing a chip, presumably this will occur to Obama when he picks a vice president. If it doesn’t, it seems likely to occur to McCain, whose instincts miss little.

Television magnifies everything even as it sorts through the minutiae. With Obama’s rebound in the first week of May, which was measured more in the margins than in any final result, the media pivoted yet again into a Hillary deathwatch. Part of this was the suddenly incontrovertible nature of the delegate count, as explained by MSNBC’s young guru Chuck Todd, whose interpretation of the figures is as unfailing as his command of the arithmetic that produces them. While CNN’s coverage, led by anchor Wolf Blitzer, has become innocuous, and while Fox’s “news” personalities still argue about whether the Earth circles the sun or the other way around, MSNBC fluctuates among the irrepressibility of my kid’s bête noire Chris Matthews, the urbane crackpottery of Keith Olbermann, and the authority of both Todd’s hard data and the divinations of Tim Russert. For someone who didn’t come to journalism until his mid-thirties—he worked in New York Democratic politics before then and even had a brief early career booking music concerts—Russert exerts an influence as TV’s graying eminence on matters political that’s unequaled. Before the 2000 election he predicted the race would come down to Florida; before the 2004 election he predicted it would come down to Ohio. When Russert pronounced, before the votes were finished being counted in Indiana, that Obama had won the nomination, it reminded people of Walter Cronkite 40 years ago pronouncing the Vietnam War unwinnable. For all the complaints that the media were trying to shut down the Democratic primary process, the truth is, it’s in the interest of a network like MSNBC that the story never ends but goes on and on and on. 

Elections are about issues, despite what the cynics say, but television is about personalities, and unless she winds up on Obama’s ticket, something is lost from the story with Clinton’s departure from it. In the waning days of the 1992 campaign, the first president Bush, running for reelection, expressed amazement that the country could even consider trading him and his stellar résumé for a governor from Arkansas. “He was a natural,” Bush reflected a decade later about Bill Clinton, “and I hated him for that.” In the last days of the 2008 Clinton campaign, surely both Bill and Hillary were as amazed at the new natural who, against even longer odds, upended the Restoration they assumed the country wanted and that the party owed them. Bill in particular went haywire in the early months of this year, a walking testament to how marriage can make you crazy. Between now and November the media will adjust to a new symmetry, between McCain, whom they’ve known well and liked and even trusted for nearly three decades, and Obama, whom they’re dazzled by but don’t know at all. Against McCain any Democrat would have a stature gap that television renders visceral: This is someone who not only spent five years being tortured as a prisoner of war but, as an admiral’s son, was offered early release after the first year and refused to take it because he wouldn’t leave his fellow prisoners behind. You don’t have to be a Republican to be impressed by that. The chemistry between the two men is not so different from that between Obama and Clinton, characterized in part by a resentment that the young star has come too far too fast. The big question before the media, with no answer immediately forthcoming, is whether Obama is that figure of destiny or someone just in the right place at the right time. This assumes it’s an either/or proposition. Figures of destiny often are people who were in the right place at the right time. 

If the first imperative of any candidate is to define himself on his own terms, it’s exponentially true for Barack Obama. The velocity of his rise rattles earthbound comfort zones, and his hybrid identity is a lot for people to process, especially when you toss in a loony minister who insists the government invented AIDS to kill black people. In late ’07 and early ’08, Obama went from being not black enough to being too black; in light of current speculation among TV’s so-called analysts that whites might not vote for him, it’s easy to forget that blacks overwhelmingly supported Clinton at the outset and that whites launched Obama’s march to the nomination, beginning with his victory in Iowa, where 96 percent of the voters were white. “He happens to be very lucky to be who he is,” sniffed former vice presidential candidate and Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro about Obama this past spring. “If [he] was a white man, he wouldn’t be in this position.” Ferraro didn’t mention that Clinton was lucky to be the wife of a former president, or she might not be in her position. Nor was she interested in the more historically exquisite truth: that a message of national unity and common purpose, delivered with Obama’s eloquence, has a special power and moral authority coming from an African American, just as a message about national security has more authority coming from a former prisoner of war.

Candidates’ messages don’t exist in the abstract, divorced from their lives. In the first televised debate among all the Democratic candidates more than a year ago, while Clinton was crisp, composed, and resolute, Obama seemed unformed, out of his depth, but a lot between his lines has filled in since. His “More Perfect Union” address in Philadelphia in March on the issue of race was as remarkable as any given by any major presidential contender in memory, largely because not a syllable of it sounded like a campaign speech. Whatever Ferraro believes, luck didn’t write those words. Ultimately we may learn Obama’s phenomenon can’t be quantified by the media’s numbers or explained by their analyses, in the same way that arguments about his inexperience seem prosaic, taking into account how it is he got the biggest foreign policy mistake of a generation right when all the wise men and women got it wrong. Somewhere over the four months of contests between January and May, voters assessed what could not be gauged by polls or punditry: Obama can learn what Hillary knows, but Hillary could never learn what Obama does, which is make people believe—more than any candidate since Ronald Reagan, if not Robert Kennedy—in the America of their dreams.

The first election I had any cognizance of was 1960, another of the rare ones that involved two interesting candidates, a glamorous existentialist who somehow knew fate put a bull’s-eye on his skull, paired with a Dostoyevskian nihilist wired for self-sabotage. Both would be doomed by the presidency each eventually won. My family was for Richard Nixon; I had a 3-D campaign button that flashed the news “Experience Counts!” That year it didn’t. Two years later, on the nuclear precipice during the Cuban missile crisis as John Kennedy was bombarded with the catastrophic advice of wise men, it was his cool thinking, unburdened by “experience,” that saved the world. This year’s election is the first to register with my son. His dread of Chris Matthews aside, Miles asks “who’s winning” when he jumps into the car after school, and now and then he peers up at the TV from what he’s reading or drawing when one of the candidates, Obama in particular, comes onscreen. He’s inclined to separate them into Good Guys and Bad Guys, though we’ve tried to explain there are no bad guys, just good guys we agree with more than others. The three are no longer three, and soon the two will no longer be two, and though this is the majestic math of democracy, this year the ones who are gone may haunt us a bit longer, the phantom limbs of our American decision.