The two candidates who have emerged from this year’s gruelling presidential primaries as their respective parties’ standard bearer present Americans with a dramatic choice. For all that can be said about their differences in background, experience, political philosophies and prescriptions for the future, it is their profoundly distinct personae that I find most compelling.
Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, each in their own way, tell a story about America, who we are and where we are going. These are their personal narratives.
John McCain’s story has been told and retold in his campaign ads. It is a story worth telling. Though younger than the so-called “greatest generation” – the generation that survived the Great Depression and went on to win the Second World War – McCain embodies their values. The grandson and son of US Navy admirals, he was raised in a culture that emphasised sacrifice, service to one’s country, and found honour in performing one’s duty.
McCain was shot down in his first aerial mission over Vietnam, captured by the North Vietnamese, imprisoned and tortured. When his captors discovered his family lineage, he was offered his freedom. He refused to leave, however, before his fellow POWs were also freed; and so he remained a prisoner for five more years.
McCain left the military life so valued by his family a few years after his release, to pursue another form of public service, running first for the US Congress and then the Senate, where he has served for 21 years.
Merging the values instilled by his military upbringing with those of the American West, which he embraced, McCain is both an independent maverick and a committed conservative driven by a fervent love of his country.
Obama’s story, too, is well-known, and the subject of his eloquently written and best-selling autobiography, Dreams from My Father. His father was a Kenyan immigrant and his mother the daughter of a working class Kansas family. Born in Hawaii, his father abandoned the family when Barack was only two years old.
His mother later remarried and moved the family to Indonesia, where the young Barack attended school before returning to Hawaii to live with his grandparents. There Barack completed high school and won a scholarship to Occidental College in California, later transferring to Columbia University.
Remarkably introspective from a young age, Obama sought to understand himself, his mixed race identity, and the meaning of family and community in a changing America. After graduation, eschewing other opportunities, he devoted himself to public service as a community organiser, working in a depressed neighbourhood in Chicago that had been ravaged by factory closings and the loss of jobs. His mission, as he saw it, was to empower and bring hope to those in this community who most needed change to improve their lives.
After completing law school at the prestigious Harvard University, Obama once again committed himself to public service. He then ran for a state senate post in Illinois, where he focused his energies on building ties between Republicans and Democrats to pass legislation that improved the criminal justice system and expanded health care coverage for children.A talented orator, a gifted organiser, and a young man with a mission, Obama ran and handily won a seat in the US Senate where his gifts and his personality helped him establish an impressive record of bipartisanship in a short period of time, catapulting him into the national spotlight.
These are the narratives, as they tell them, of the two men who will compete for the presidency. Both are compelling, and both are real. And while radically different personal stories, both are authentically American, conveying as they do two distinct images of being American in the 21st century. Both men are patriots, projecting the ideals of freedom and opportunity and service to their country in different ways.
Without wanting to prejudice either, one image is, in fact, more traditional in its self-definition of service and the ideals it projects, while the other more expansive, encompassing a broader vision and global ideals.Both men now share centre stage, having proven their political skills in this difficult campaign. Each will present their competing political solutions to the problems plaguing US foreign policy, the US economy, and the role of government in addressing a myriad social issues. As compelling as these differences will be, and as substantive as the debate over their proposed solutions ought to be, always before the electorate in the coming months will be these two competing narratives and images of what it means to be an American that each conveys.
Dr James J Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute