The Friday night before Election Day, 2008 – Halloween night, everyone in clever costumes, or cute costumes, or sly and hip costumes, or just clad in some sort of ironic outfit, intending to puzzle you, as what they’re wearing may not be a costume at all, or it might be. You like this sort of thing – from the cute kids to the elderly fellow in top hat, tails and roller skates – or you find it, all told, rather tiresome. If you’ve seen one five-year-old as a Disney princess or another as Harry Potter you’ve seen them all. The adults are into elaborate preening and posing they’d never dare any other day at the office or with friends in the evening – into utterly safe outrageousness – and you nod politely and mutter something about how clever they are. They like that. And then it’s over for another year. The kids will be sick from all the candy for a day or two, but that too will pass.
That Election Day follows hard upon Halloween is a little joke from our past. The history of how that happened is clear enough – it had nothing to do with people pretending to be something else, or any preening and posing, but just the logical thing for an agrarian society with slow communications and even slower travel. If you needed a new president in January, well, you’d better start working on that early – so early November it was. No one was thinking about Halloween just a few days earlier – in fact, no one was dressing up and trick-or-treating back then. That’s a fairly recent thing. It’s just a coincidence.
But now the two sort of blend into each other – ghosts and goblins and lions and princesses appear at your door, asking for those goodies they know you owe them, and politicians are on your television set, telling you that you must, for your own good, vote for them, and certainly should reject the other guy. There’s a lot of preening and posing – what they call political posturing, or political positioning. Candidates develop narratives about themselves, or their staff of strategists and consultants do. It’s not like putting on some clever Halloween costume and becoming Harry Potter or Linda Lovelace or whatever – but it is creating a character, at best, or a caricature at worst. You can be the fiery fighter-pilot maverick war hero, or the calm, cool and collected smart-as-a-whip but sensible black dude. You can be the casual and sexy Hockey Mom or the easy-going but wise old Senator who’s an expert on everything, but humble nevertheless. But you do get into character – you became that character. It’s useful shorthand for an easily distracted electorate.
You drop the candy in the kid’s bag. You consider how you’ll vote. It all blends together after a while.
What do you do when the fiery fighter-pilot maverick war hero appears at your door? That’s when things get interesting. John McCain’s argument that you should vote for him sometimes seems to come down to the idea that, as he says, he’s fought for this country since he was seventeen, and he spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war, and he’s good at getting righteously angry about all sorts of things, so we all owe him – he did what he was supposed to do, and more, and he is the one who deserves the job. He earned it – he’s here to collect.
So the idea is you drop the candy in his bag – the other guy didn’t earn it. Barack Obama didn’t pay his dues – in fact, the other guy is in the wrong costume, if that’s a costume at all.
But then, as many have noted, John McCain is supremely disinterested in policy and details. As noted before, in the Washington Post, George Will finds this troubling:
Palin may be an inveterate simplifier; McCain has a history of reducing controversies to cartoons. A Republican financial expert recalls attending a dinner with McCain for the purpose of discussing with him domestic and international financial complexities that clearly did not fascinate the senator. As the dinner ended, McCain’s question for his briefer was: “So, who is the villain?”
He likes things simple, even when things are not simple at all. That could be trouble. The idea of him turning to his vice president is scary – this stuff in complicated and boring, so Sarah, you handle it. That would make you miss Dick Cheney, as that sort of thing seemed to work fine for incurious George. Dick would take care of complicated and puzzling things. This time – that model doesn’t work.
The other thing that bothers some is the character that John McCain is presenting for our consideration is from an old war movie from the sixties. He thinks we should keep on doing whatever it is we’re doing in Iraq and win that war, even if we already won the war itself and no one can quite define what winning would now be, as we’re in a complicated occupation and regional stabilization effort. But he says he knows how to win this war, even if no one thinks of it now as a war. He knows how to win wars, generally – and Obama wants to give up now and lose this one. Of course he has long held that we could have won the Vietnam War – we just gave up too soon, probably because the media convinced the American public that things were hopeless. Actually most people back then decided it was pointless – a different thing entirely.
But this time, if we elect John McCain, we’ll win – or so he says. Tell him that the whole Iraq adventure is pointless, and always was pointless, and he’ll tell you, no, it’s not hopeless at all. That’s his gripe with Obama, who keeps saying the Iraq thing really was pointless – and that he is not opposed to all wars, just dumb wars – while McCain is saying it is not hopeless at all, which seems to be a quite different predicate adjective. Why fight what is pointless, with all the dead involved and the trillions of dollars in costs, just to say you won what was pointless anyway? McCain says that’s not the point – we could really win this thing. Obama doesn’t see the point – the bad guys are elsewhere.
All this seems to make McCain very angry. Oddly, this feels as if he’s really saying that this is now our real chance to win the Vietnam War, in Iraq, or something. Never give up, never surrender – both wars blend together.
It’s all part of the character he’s become – or always was. He’s angry and he’s a fighter, and he will make us winners again. Put that together with his other often repeated claim, that he knows exactly how to capture or kill that Osama fellow, and just where he is, and, if we elect him, he promises to get that guy, as he’s known all along precisely how to do it. He didn’t tell anyone of his plan to do this, but if we elect him, it will be done immediately – case closed.
He does seem to like to play the cut-the-crap hero who just gets things done, from some old war movie. You might remember this:
For all the national attention surrounding John McCain’s two highly anticipated, protest-ridden commencement speeches in New York last week, the Senator actually saved some of his best material for the crowd that gathered on Friday behind closed doors in the back of the Regency Hotel.
In a small, mirror-paneled room guarded by a Secret Service agent and packed with some of the city’s wealthiest and most influential political donors, Mr. McCain got right to the point.
“One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit,'” said Mr. McCain, according to Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, an invitee, and two other guests.
You get the idea – or at least you know the character from the movie.
And there is the subplot from that old movie – the soldiers come home from Vietnam and people spit on them and scream at them that they’re baby-killers. There’s no evidence that actually happened – it’s a bit of an urban legend – but as they say out here in Hollywood, if it feels true go with it. We call it dramatic effect, not quite the same thing as lying. It’s just a form of emphasis. And now, with McCain, we see him vowing to restore our lost honor. Such a thing will never happen again, even if it never happened in the first place.
So you get an angry man, out to right old wrongs. The question is whether you identify with the character he has fleshed out for you. Some do, others don’t – which it is depends on your own inner demons. You’ve seen this clip – the one where McCain addresses all of us as “my fellow prisoners.” That might not have been that much of a mistake. If we’re going to escape the same as Vietnam, we stay in Iraq, doing whatever it is we’re doing. Otherwise we all really are prisoners, or something.
If you’re over Vietnam, well, some Halloween characters are scarier than others. If you’re not over it, Obama is even scarier – he doesn’t want to finally win in Vietnam, or something.
Of course there is another way to look at this. John Dickerson covers that in I’m Your Answer (How McCain’s and Obama’s closing speeches reflect their campaigns):
As both candidates make their final pitches to voters, the connection between ego and abnegation has reached its most intense level. McCain and Obama are each saying, “Hook your dreams to me, and we’ll go to a better place.” That is the final message of their speeches, and the very last sentiment they offer voters before leaving the stage. And their pitches, especially in these closing days of the campaign, reflect the races they’ve run and the visions they’re offering.
On one side:
For the last two weeks, McCain has ended his campaign speeches with a call to fight. It’s a passage that first appeared at the end of his acceptance speech in Minneapolis. After describing the country’s troubles, McCain pledges to solve them, saying, “I am an American, and I choose to fight.” This line sparks his crowds into roars of approval. McCain then implores people to join with him in the fight for justice, our children, and to fix the economy.
Like his campaign, McCain’s message is personal. His presidency will succeed, he says, because it will flow from him – his biography, his sturdy constitution, his sense of honor. “I have fought for you most of my life, and in places where defeat meant more than returning to the Senate,” he says before the crescendo oration. The speech ends with a list of all that “we” will do together.
On the other side:
Obama takes voters to the same place but by a different route. As he concludes his stump speech, he describes a note he received from a woman named Robyn, whose son suffered from a heart condition and whose insurance company refused to pay for it. “I ask only this of you,” Obama says, reading from her letter. “On the days when you feel so tired you can’t think of uttering another word to the people, think of us. When those who oppose you have you down, reach deep and fight back harder.” Obama concludes his speech with an even longer litany than McCain of what “we” will do together.
The message has always opened Obama to the charge that his campaign is a personality cult. When Obama said, “We are the change we believe in,” he was quoting a Native American expression that means we must all join together to effect change. Yet when Obama said it in a political context, many people heard it as: “I am the change you need to believe in.”
… Throughout Obama’s campaign, he has presented himself as a vessel to carry out the will of the collective behind him. This was the message of one of the best-known passages of his old stump speech, the “Fired up, ready to go” story he told during the Democratic primaries. Obama described being in a funk and how he was shaken out of it by a local South Carolina politician who inspired her constituents by saying “Fired up!” to which the crowd responded, “Ready to go.”
So you get the contrast:
McCain wants audiences to join together and fight with their vote, but his vision of leadership is a solitary one. In the end, he will do what he thinks is best.
Obama presents himself as the candidate carried and sustained by the support of a movement that will continue to exert itself if he wins the White House.
Okay then, it’s Halloween – both are at your door, in their costumes. You have one candy bar left. Which one gets the candy?