Clearly Focused on Biography

>> Monday, August 18, 2008

One of the central themes of this election cycle has been Biography. It is a central theme in American politics that our leaders cannot be mere mortals. The must be greater than that, their lives must be stories that represent the greatness of our country. American leaders need to be unique in their background while at the same time being like everyone else. The last two men standing in this election are no different. Their biographies play a central role in their campaigns.

In Barack Obama’s landmark speech on race, “A More Perfect Union”, during the Democratic Primary this is how he summed his biography.

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave-owners - an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

It is this biography, unique in the history of American Presidential politics, which has drawn both admiration and deprecation. The Biography of Obama draws rave reviews from his supporters who long to see America embrace a more multicultural - wider ranging - worldview. These supporters are elated at the anecdotes like the one he told in San Francisco Sunday,

"Not only do I think I'm a desi, but I'm a desi," he said, using a colloquial term that describes South Asian immigrants. The remark was greeted with laughs. "I'm a homeboy."

He said that when he went to Occidental College, his first roommate was Pakistani. And in his dorm, he said with a laugh, "Indians and Pakistanis came together under one roof ... to cause havoc in the university."

To applause, he said he became an expert at cooking dal and other ethnic dishes, though "somebody else made the naan," the trademark Indian bread.

The unique experiences that are so cherished by his supporters are perceived by his opponents as one of his greatest weaknesses. Mark Penn, Hilary Clinton’s Chief Strategist during her primary bid, wrote in a strategy memo

All of these articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared towards showing his background is diverse, multicultural and putting that in a new light.

Save it for 2050.

It also exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values. He told the people of NH yesterday he has a Kansas accent because his mother was from there. His mother lived in many states as far as we can tell—but this is an example of the nonsense he uses to cover this up.

How we could give some life to this contrast without turning negative:

Every speech should contain the line you were born in the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century. And talk about the basic bargain as about the deeply American values you grew up with, learned as a child and that drive you today. Values of fairness, compassion, responsibility, giving back.

Let’s explicitly own ‘American’ in our programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn’t. Make this a new American Century, the American Strategic Energy Fund. Let’s use our logo to make some flags we can give out. Let’s add flag symbols to the backgrounds.

It is no secret why Penn thought that this “Ownership of America” would be a viable strategy. America has had a fear of the other in its culture, a streak of slight xenophobia. Many in this country perceive it to be superior in every way and many are distrustful of things foreign or different. Not fitting the caricature of being a American is such a flaw that it would make someone unelectable because only a true, real, American could ever lead us. In the minds of many, Obama has to strikes immediately against him, his name and his skin color. To combat these issue Obama is doing everything he can to get his biography out there and to link it to America and to the average voter he encounters. He does events like Pastor Rick Warrens forum where he can display his faith and relate to Christian voters.

Obama started well on the "3 wisest people" question. Christians like to hear men say they listen to their wives even when they know it isn't true. On the "greatest moral failing" question, Obama hit two home runs in a row. Framing his teenaged failings in terms of selfishness, of focusing on himself - very slyly giving a nod to Warren's "it's not about you" mantra - is exactly what Christians want to hear. Obama's answer is known as "giving your testimony" in conservative Christian (CC) circles; it shows a personal intimacy with the forms and content of Christianity. Obama's answer for America's greatest moral failing, quoting from Matthew 25, was pitch-perfect. You cannot argue with that answer, you cannot distort it, you cannot claim that Obama doesn't love America enough. And that he expanded it to apply to racism and sexism was good as well.

As for Obama's worldview, again he shows an ease with the concepts and vocabulary of American Christianity. "Get myself out of the way" is very good. The "acting justly, loving mercy, walking humbly with our God" is a reference to Micah 6:8, one of the most popular Bible verses within Evangelical Christianity. That's just bloody brilliant rhetoric there, not only in knowing to use the verse, but knowing exactly when and how to use it. Again, I think Obama really believes this stuff, which is why he's able to be so natural with it all. He's actually read the Bible - unlike most Evangelicals - and it's important to him.

It appears that not only will Obama continue to do events like the FFP he has decided to make the Democratic Convention a story about his Americaness.

Through four nights there will be testimonials from family members like Mr. Obama’s wife and sister who will tell his “very American story,” in the words of one adviser, and from party luminaries like Senator Edward M. Kennedy (by videotape) and former President Bill Clinton (live) who will give Mr. Obama, the presumptive presidential nominee, the imprimatur of the party establishment.

At the convention beginning next Monday in Denver, there will be appearances by lesser known “Americans from all walks of life, from across the country” speaking about their support for Mr. Obama. Combined with a film featuring the candidate in all-American scenes by Davis Guggenheim — the director of “An Inconvenient Truth” whose father produced a similar biographical film for Robert F. Kennedy — aides to Mr. Obama are using the convention to tackle what members of both parties see as his greatest vulnerability with undecided voters: his “otherness.”

I am one of those who view the story of Barack Obama as a positive. AS the world becomes smaller do to globalization America cannot afford to keep its head in the sand, we need a President who will open America’s eyes to the rest of the world. Obama supports teaching children a foreign language. From personal experience, I can tell you that going abroad without a basic understanding of another language can be a big handicap. Obama will also be able to illustrate to the world that America is ready to turn the page on the disastrous Bush years. People should not vote for Obama because he is black or because he has the biography but it should be a definite positive.

Maybe it is a sign of my youth but I have trouble understanding why attacking Obama over his biography would be effective. I am not from the Midwest. I do not hold that region of the country in some mythic status above the rest of the country. Claiming that Obama is not sufficiently dedicated to this country is something that should earn scorn and enmity. He has proved it as much as any other American. America is bigger than the white people who live in a few states in the middle of the country and it is time we had a president who demonstrated that.


O-le,O-le, O-le, O-le! O-le, O-le!

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