It's not news that the people who run for president are far more driven than the rest of us. Nor is it news that the emotional propellant required to reach such political heights often traces back to early experiences—and not, generally, good experiences. Take the best recent example of this, Bill Clinton. His father died in a car accident between Clinton's conception and birth. Later, Clinton's stepfather proved to be an abusive alcoholic. No surprise, then, that Clinton early on developed an ability to read people's moods (a defense against his stepfather's unpredictability), became host to a tremendous empathy (borne of his proximity to loss, addiction, and violence), and honed a talent for putting on a good face (a result of his feeling that he needed to hide his family's private shame in public).
Of such stuff are great politicians made. Or, to put it another way: If you thought you had issues with the man who brought you into this world, try being the man who grows up to believe he has what it takes to be leader of the free world.
Over the next two weeks, we will be introduced—at the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions—to two men who have come to believe just this and who, naturally, have had plenty of issues with their fathers. They've even put out similarly titled books on the subject: Dreams from My Father, in the case of Barack Obama, and Faith of My Fathers, in the case of John McCain. As the summer winds up and the dash toward November 4 begins, it's worth reexamining how each of these men, one of whom will inevitably emerge as the national paterfamilias, responded to and learned from his own paterfamilias. After all, if we've taken any lessons from the presidency of George W. Bush, whose issues with his "wimpy" father caused him to rely on hawkish advisers and adopt a compensatory belligerence, it is that a candidate's relationship with his dad should concern us all.
Obama's book is the greater achievement of the two. He wrote this searching, unguarded memoir by himself at a relatively young age, and published it in 1995, before he'd ever run for any political office. (Unlike McCain, who cowrote his book with a longtime Senate aide and then published it, in 1999, right before his first presidential run.) It would be naive to think that Obama, as he was writing his memoir, didn't sense that great things were expected of him. He had just graduated from Harvard Law School, had been handed (without asking for it) a book contract based on newspaper accounts of his accomplishments as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and then had been offered (again, without asking for it) a fellowship to essentially do whatever he wanted at the University of Chicago. When Obama told the professor who gave him the fellowship that he wanted to work on a book, he was set up in an office near the law library where he could meditate on his upbringing and turn his self-analysis into sentences.
For all the assumptions of future greatness that were heaped upon Obama at the time, the resulting book, released to relatively little notice, shows almost no evidence of grand ambition or political calculation. It is, instead, an unabashed exploration of the interior struggles and insecurities of a biracial young man trying to locate himself in the world absent a paternal anchor. It is emotionally intricate in a way that reveals a powerful mind hard at work digesting knotty questions of identity and race. It is a moving affirmation of the value of self- exploration. And, not least, it is literary—a shocking accomplishment, as almost every recent reviewer has noted, since it is the product of a man who went on to become a politician.
Generally speaking, politically minded people lack the freedom (or the ability) to convey the subtleties and paradoxes of life as it is actually lived, which tends to make them terrible writers. Barack Obama, in Dreams from My Father, turns out to be all about the subtleties and paradoxes and weird private moments of life, and on top of that he is a talented writer, naturally skilled at constructing the interlocking narratives and interesting characters (many of them composites) that he relies on to tell his story. This is not his only literary effort. He is said to have written short stories (never published) for his own enjoyment during his community organizing days, and the fact that he went on to try to write, in a literal and metaphorical sense, one of the greatest stories ever told—that of a black man becoming president of the United States—begins to make a deeper sort of sense knowing this. Obama is a man who can, with a far greater range of linguistic tools than most top-level politicians, write his own ticket. (Is it any wonder, then, that many political journalists—who are often themselves frustrated or failed writers of literature—seem to admire him?)
In the book, Obama exhibits the easy cadence and knack for vivid depiction in plain language that has endeared him to Americans on the campaign trail. "I flew out of Heathrow Airport under stormy skies," he writes in a typical chapter opening. "A group of young British men dressed in ill-fitting blazers filled the back of the plane, and one of them—a pale, gangly youth, still troubled with acne—took the seat beside me. He read over the emergency instructions twice with great concentration, and once we were airborne, he turned to ask where I was headed. I told him I was traveling to Nairobi to visit my family."
The reader isn't left breathless at the power of the sentence construction in this paragraph, but neither is he putting the book down. More powerful is the personal journey: the frisson of lanky and erudite Barack Obama plopped down on a plane next to some nervous, gangly white guy from the UK, and the intrigue of riding along with him as he untangles the meaning of his African father, also named Barack Obama, who made him different, welcomed him into the world, quickly left him alone with his white mother to figure out what it all meant, and then died in a car accident before Obama could ask him.
What's most remarkable about the way Obama comes to terms with his heritage is the manner in which he goes about it—sometimes blindly reactive but never for very long, and always highly self-aware and reflective. Of his mindset during that visit to Kenya, which was an attempt to get a feel for the truth of his father's side of the family, Obama writes: "What if the truth only disappointed, and my father's death meant nothing, and his leaving me behind meant nothing, and the only tie that bound me to him, or to Africa, was a name, a blood type, or white people's scorn?"
Here, then, is a man who exemplifies the liberal ideal, operating on the belief that difficulty will be overcome through honest interaction between interior pain and outside realities, and committed to serious intellectual inquiry but ready for the possibility that it will only disappoint.
His book is imperfect—the section on his community organizing days is far too long for the substance contained within, the use of composite characters raises inevitable questions about what is real and what is pure fiction, and in the foreword to the new edition Obama himself confesses to wincing at some of his word choice and emotional descriptions. But it is a great achievement and now serves as a powerful antidote to the conservative meme about Obama being a shallow changeling with no fixed core. At Obama's core, the book convincingly shows, is a deep yearning to have had a father to teach him what it meant to be Barack Obama, and a deep pride at having learned to be that father to himself.
John McCain, by contrast, offers a familiar tale: the wayward son, at once loudly chafing against and quietly wanting to live up to the legacy of his military forefathers, redeemed and set on a political path by difficult service to country.
There is little to glean about candidate McCain from the way he writes, since the words in Faith of My Fathers are not his own. But in tone, the book does seem to be going for that same mix of serious and self-mocking, patriotic and realistic, educated but not effete, that McCain cultivates in his public appearances. It also is filled with a particularly stilted sort of military humor, heavy on jokes about revered authority figures doing unexpected things that aren't quite that funny. (Here, for example, is the punch line to a joke about an admiral playing a trick on McCain's grandfather: "How do you expect to run naval aviation if you can't take care of your own teeth?")
What can be seen very clearly, however, is how different McCain's father issues are than Obama's.
When McCain recounts his family lineage, it recalls that scene in Forrest Gump in which Forrest says about his superior, Lieutenant Dan, "Somebody in his family had fought and died in every single American war!" (while on the screen, a series of Lieutenant Dan look-alikes fall dead in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II).
The more recent military history in the McCain family includes McCain's father, John S. McCain Jr., who commanded a submarine during World War II and served as commander in chief of the Pacific region during the Vietnam War, and McCain's grandfather, John S. McCain Sr., who commanded U.S. land-based bombers during World War II and became deputy chief of naval operations after the war. (And yes, an even earlier McCain was a member of the Confederate States Army.)
John McCain, then, had a lot to live up to. He shares with Obama the experience of being named after his father and growing up with long periods of fatherly absence, but for McCain the absences were of a different quality. First, they were temporary, and second, they were part of a grand tradition, supported by the military culture in which McCain was raised—a tradition that says this is what fathers do: They go off and fight wars.
"[Navy] fathers, perhaps because of and not in spite of their long absences, can be a huge presence in our lives," McCain and his Senate aide, Mark Salter, write in Faith of My Fathers. "You are taught to consider their absences not as a deprivation but as an honor. By your father's calling, you are born into an exclusive, noble tradition. Its standards require your father to dutifully serve a cause greater than his self-interest, and everyone around you, your mother, other relatives, the whole Navy world, drafts you to the cause as well. Your father's life is marked by brave and uncomplaining sacrifice. You are asked only to bear the inconveniences caused by his absence with a little of the same stoic acceptance."
It's so common as to be almost uninteresting that McCain rebelled against the strictures of military culture, partying and ranking fifth from the bottom of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy. What's more interesting is that, by and large, he did exactly what his father expected of him as an adult. By the time McCain was a naval aviator in the Vietnam War, he was so intent on proving himself worthy of his name that he "pleaded" to be included, despite his relative inexperience, on the bombing run that led to his being shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese. It was 1967, and over Hanoi, in the cockpit of his fighter plane, McCain heard a tone telling him an antiaircraft missile had locked on his plane. "I knew I should roll out and fly evasive maneuvers, 'jinking' in fliers' parlance," he and Salter writer in the book. "But I was just about to release my bombs when the tone sounded, and had I started jinking I would never have had the time, nor, probably, the nerve to go back in." He released his bombs. A moment later the incoming missile destroyed the right wing of his plane.
McCain ejected, breaking both arms and his right knee in the process, landed in a lake, and was captured. He then spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war, a good chunk of that time at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, and withstood severe physical and psychological torture. At one point, he refused release out of loyalty to his fellow prisoners of war, an unquestionably admirable decision that is recounted in the book with a compelling humility. But, as the book also makes clear, McCain knew he was getting less severe torture at the Hanoi Hilton than other prisoners because his father was the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific. The North Vietnamese wanted McCain to look reasonably healthy in any propaganda film they could force him to make, and they wanted him alive as a bargaining chip.
If McCain had his father to thank for his somewhat above-average conditions, he also had him to thank for the B-52s that were sent late in the war to "rain destruction on the city where I was held a prisoner." The lesson, evocative of Abraham's Old Testament willingness to sacrifice his son for God's will, was that McCain's father would risk killing him to win a war.
McCain admired that devotion to duty. And he was ashamed to find out, after his release, that his father had already learned that at one point in captivity McCain had been "broken" and agreed to make a taped confession. After the war, Faith of My Fathers recounts, McCain tried to explain his failure to his father. "He listened impassively until I finished, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, 'You did the best you could, John. That's all that's expected of any of us.'"
Here, then, is the classic prodigal son, returning in the end to his need for his father's approval. Here, too, is the classic American conservative, eager for revered codes— religious, military, paternal, and others—that organize one's life and lessen the need for all that endless searching and self-questioning.
The books, taken together, do a surprisingly better job of providing one with a feel for the candidates than the current blizzard of news coverage. They also suggest a clear choice of daddy issues in this election.
On one side is a man who sought to understand his father, move on, and become his own person—a man who in his early 30s looked inside himself and found a voice, and a memoir, that were both ahead of their time.
On the other side is a man who sought his father's approval, failed in moments to live up to his father's ideals, and continues to this day to want to be a man cut from the family mold—a man who late in life got a friend to help him write a book that sounds like just about every other made-to-order political biography of a once-wayward military hero.
Or, as the political shorthand puts it: change versus more of the same.