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Saturday, August 16, 2008

McCain versus Obama: "placelessness," faith, and dreams

Peggy Noonan wrote an op-ed in yesterday's Wall Street Journal entitled The End of Placeness. Although more often lately I have found myself disagreeing with her political observations, I remain a fan of her prose, in part because it has a vivid and authentically consistent voice even on the printed page. And she herself is sensitive to such things, as yesterday's piece reflects when she describes the attending "a gathering a few weeks ago for an aged Southern sage":

Even as an outsider, you knew them. They were Mississippi Delta people — Mizz-izz-DEHLT people — and the sense of placeness they brought into the room with them was sweet to me. It allowed you to know them, in the same way that at a gathering of, say, Irish Catholics from the suburbs of Boston, you would be able to know them, pick up who they are, with your American antennae.

She's not talking only of dialects and accents and language, but more broadly of local cultures. She laments the modern flattening down of such distinctive indicators of people's distinct local roots. Of how this connects to this year's presidential nominees, she writes:

Messrs. Obama and McCain are not from a place, but from an experience. Mr. McCain of course was a Navy brat. He bounced around, as members of the families of our military must, and wound up for a time in the suburbs of Washington. Mr. Obama's mother was somewhat itinerant, in search of different climes. He was born in Hawaii, which Americans on the continent don't experience so much as a state as a destination, a place of physical beauty and singular culture. You go there to escape and enjoy. Then his great circling commenced: Indonesia, back to Hawaii, on to the western coast of America, then to the eastern coast, New York and Cambridge. He circled the continent, entering it, if you will, in Chicago, where he settled in his 30s.

The lack of placeness with both candidates contributes to a sense of their disjointedness, their floatingness....

I think she's half-right here, or rather, that her observation is only wholly true with respect to one of the nominees. About the other nominee, in the most important way, she's wrong. And it's the part she's wrong about with one candidate, along with what she's wholly right about with the other, that actually matter a great deal in this election.


John McCain has a temper, and even though he struggles to control it, he's nevertheless famous for showing it. Often he's at his most authentic when he does, which is not necessarily his most appealing, because a hot temper flatters almost no one. But one of the charges he faced in 1982 in his first run for Congress was that he was a "carpetbagger," someone new to Arizona who'd come there not long before the election and who had no roots in the state. According to a biographical series about him published in The Arizona Republic, McCain "snapped" when he was confronted about his recent Arizona residency "for about the thousandth time" at a political rally:

Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the first district of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.

That's a pretty sharp comeback, and it was an effective one at the time. But the annoyance with which it was spoken came, I believe, from at least two distinct sources, albeit related ones. The obvious source was his frustration that he could be so criticized in a political race on the basis of his personal adult career choices that had put duty, honor, and country first while he served in his country's uniform. Thus did John McCain, naval aviator and long-time POW, react to the carpetbagger charge: a single place-name, Hanoi, was, with all it implied, sufficient to heap recrimination upon his accuser.

But another source of the emotion in this sharp retort was, if you will, something that can be heard in the voice of John McCain the Navy brat, the grandson and son of Navy admirals whose family's postings circled the globe. The carpetbagger accusation also brought up painful memories of a scrawny boy who learned to be tough and cocky and, yes, a smart-ass and trouble-maker, because that was the best persona he could devise for dealing with his family's constant relocations even before he ever donned the uniform of an Annapolis cadet. The family members of career military personnel, no less than those personnel themselves, face ever-gnawing doubts that their joint familial sacrifices for duty, honor, and country are taken seriously and properly appreciated by the countryman they're protecting. And so combined with the resentment that the questioner didn't show proper appreciation for McCain's own military service was a sincere statement that, yes indeed, McCain often did wish he'd had the good fortune to grow up with traditional ties to a single geographic location. His and his family's sacrifices for their country certainly didn't start when he was shot down over Hanoi.

Constant moving can easily result in a longing, a growing hunger, for place and permanency. And indeed, the strongest similarity between  their two first autobiographical memoirs — McCain's Faith of My Fathers and Obama's Dreams from My Father — is their telling of the authors' continual boyhood struggles to fit in, to belong, while their respective family circumstances were bouncing them from location to location amidst a constantly changing cast of secondary characters. Reading these two books back to back — as I did, and as I highly recommend — will leave you with strong feelings of sympathy and, perhaps, empathy for their two protagonists. (If you follow the first of my links above, you might look for Amazon's "Buy Together Today" button offering both books in paperback at a special price of $18.16.)


But what Ms. Noonan misses — what's so different between McCain's and Obama's respective geographic "placelessness" while growing up — has to do with the vastly different reasons for their families' constant moving, and what those reasons entailed for the people they grew up amongst. Barack Obama's young life, and the people around him then, were filled with unconnected randomness. John McCain's young life, and the people around him then, were filled with deeply shared purpose.

McCain knew both his father and his paternal grandfather very well as real-life men — men who were often physically and sometimes emotionally distant, but not truly absent. Indeed their metaphysical presence in his life was constant and obvious. Obama, by contrast, can only remember meeting his father once, briefly, when he was 10, and he never met his paternal grandfather at all. They had no presence in Barack Obama's life while he was growing up; they were only dreams and stories and faded photos, with an occasional letter.

And the contrast continues with the other adults in the two candidates' young lives. While Obama at least had a long-term relationship with his maternal grandparents, even that came at the expense of being effectively abandoned to their care by his own mother — hardly an ideal situation. Indeed, the adults around young Obama seemed in his book to be tied to nowhere and nothing — and outside of their immediate family (and sometimes not even that), to nobody. Obama was both a literal and figurative "step-child," someone whose main self-identity came to be in his apartness, someone who was continually trying to find himself, someone whose struggle for even a racial self-identity was far from the worst of his self-identification problems.

Sen. John McCain's 96-year-old mother, Roberta McCain, leading him and his wife Cindy on April 1, 2008, at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, which McCain attended in the early 1950s (AP photo).Is it possible that anyone could be more unlike Obama's mother, with her dizzying moves from husband to husband and country to country, than McCain's mother, who was always the quintessential "Navy wife," wholly integrated into an American military-family culture that is proud and vast and long-standing? However often Roberta McCain and young John moved, they were never alone, never strangers, never "lost" — and they never had to flail about trying to "find themselves." Rather, from birth to adulthood, McCain was surrounded by people whose lives were dedicated to a clear set of ideals and a clear purpose. All those people continuously reinforced and reminded him of the faith — the dedication to duty, honor, and country — that he inherited as a legacy from his grandfather and father.

Even the portions of Obama's book about his extended trip to meet his father's "other family" in Africa are as much a story of disassociation as they are of finding oneself. Oh, he's sensitive, and he's articulate, and however much of it is actually true, it's a moving and thought-provoking story. But Obama couldn't miss the contradictions, the rifts, the betrayals and bitter feuds and loneliness in his father's and paternal grandfather's lives. Indeed, much of the merit of his memoir comes from Obama's telling of the tensions and paradoxes in his own life that derived from his remote father's and grandfather's histories. And those things not only became increasingly troublesome and painful to Barack Obama, they apparently have still never actually resolved themselves — neither for him, nor for the various uncles and aunts and cousins and other extended family members from Kenya who he introduces in the last fifth of his book.

We none of us pick our parents, and I'm not suggesting the lack of a coherent, consistent, and neatly directed family history is something blameworthy on Obama's part. But upon reaching the end of his book, despite its intimate tone and thoughtful nature, I have no clue what (other than ambition) actually motivates Barack Obama, either in his daily life or his long-term aspirations. His book does indeed show us dreams — chaotic, frightening, and often contradictory ones that he can't quite sort out, despite his struggle. Of faith, in anything, there doesn't seem to be much — and such faith as there is, is in isolated individuals acting as loners and as migrants.

Even if one concludes that they share a certain superficial degree of geographic "placelessness," the candidates' respective book titles thus point out a trite but fundamentally true comparison:  McCain got a rock-solid and abiding "faith" from his grandfather and father — faith in them, in himself, in the U.S. Navy and the other U.S. military forces, and most importantly, in all of America — while at best, Obama got only "dreams" from his.


So here we are, with one candidate who (when he's feeling a bit prickly, which is fairly often) will remind us of his years in the Hanoi Hilton, and the other who (when he's trying to snow us, which is every minute of every day) will run television commercials implying that he grew up in Kansas, when he's never lived there at all. Does that make the two men indistinguishable from one another with respect to their sense of home, homeland, or "placeness"?

Peggy Noonan seems to think so. But I think she's seriously underestimated the extent to which one can still have a real, if non-geographic, "home" among the uniformed members of the U.S. military and among their families. Even frequent transplants can have healthy roots in that extended and non-geography-based culture.

John McCain is the first to tell you that it was when he was in the dank, dark cells of the Hanoi Hilton — first in almost unbearable isolation, and then in the comradeship of his fellow POWs — that he came to truly appreciate America and what it means to be an American. And that heightened appreciation in a time of crisis and deprivation was only possible because he had, indeed, soaked up so much of America even bouncing around as a "Navy brat" and a young Navy officer. Whatever other doubts I have about the grumpy old man in the race — and I still have many — I don't doubt that he's deeply imbued with fundamental American values. In a sense — the one connected with my vote and its potential effects, broadly writ, upon the future — I'm willing, given the available choices, to bet my children's lives and futures on his values and the judgment those values inform.

But when, exactly, did Barack Obama come to truly appreciate America and what it means to be an American? Does his eloquence when speaking with a Teleprompter translate into heartfelt values? And where's the evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, that his values — whatever they are (besides the seemingly transcendent value of electing Barack Obama) — are my values too? He's certainly learned, and demonstrated, that even the rootless can prosper in America; "my story," he frequently says, "could not have taken place anywhere but here!" And that's true and fine as far as it goes. But there is still much in this man's history that troubles me, that mystifies me, and that makes me unwilling to gamble anything important upon him.

Ultimately McCain doesn't suffer from what Noonan characterizes as his "placelessness." It's true that there's no single American place to which he's historically or temperamentally rooted — no ancestral manor, no distinctive accent. But John McCain is not rootless. Rather, McCain is rooted to the entire United States — and in exactly the same way that he and his father and grandfather weren't fighting as U.S. Navy officers for Ohio or Texas or Nebraska, but for all of America. We should recognize that as a source of strength, not a defect in his upbringing.

Roots actually do go a long way, I believe, as a predictor of presidential reliability and performance, and as a source of values and faith. And whether you call it "roots" or "placeness" or whatever, I'll take any random U.S. military base over all of the places that young Barack Obama ever lived in, briefly and tenuously, even put together.

Posted by Beldar at 09:40 PM in 2008 Election, McCain, Obama, Politics (2008) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to McCain versus Obama: "placelessness," faith, and dreams and sent a trackback ping are listed here:


(1) Mbaesq made the following comment | Aug 17, 2008 2:46:24 AM | Permalink

Wow, just wow. I read your blog from time to time and this is post is absolutely eloquent, moving, and correct. The perfect capstone to what Peggy Noonan (who is a wonderful writer, though a little too captivated by her style) should have said.

(2) The Drill SGT made the following comment | Aug 17, 2008 8:31:13 AM | Permalink

"While Obama at least had a long-term relationship with his paternal grandparents, "

that should be "maternal"

Great Post

(3) Dan S made the following comment | Aug 17, 2008 9:12:28 AM | Permalink

Nailed it, Beldar. And beautifully too.

I'm with you on the grumpy old man. I disagree with him on many things, but I do believe he puts the country first.

(4) Jill made the following comment | Aug 17, 2008 1:35:55 PM | Permalink

Beldar, You have the same sense that I have had about Obama. His first years of schooling were in Indonesia. The very years that American kids in American schools are learning the Pledge of Allegience, the National Anthem, and other lessons about America's history and traditions. These are the years when pride of country and knowing you are part of a specific culture start. My grade shcool grand kids recognize and are proud of the American flag.

Immigrants who truely want to be an American will work towards understanding and embracing our ideals.

Obama is not an immigrant, neither did he get his early education in an American school.

His mother was such a person of the world that I suspect she didn't spend much time instilling Americanism in Obama.

(5) Roy Lofquist made the following comment | Aug 17, 2008 1:36:58 PM | Permalink

I've seen a lot of presidents. Starting with Truman. My vote is not determined by policies. It is determined by character.

Sobriety, seriousness, rectitude, other directed, sense of humor, tempered judgment, air of command...

As circumstances have it the Democrats have a hard time coming up with candidates that fill that bill. Stevenson and Humphrey were the very best of that sorry lot.

I don't pay much attention to policy. The President proposes, the Congress disposes.

I look for a man that can handle the bears and the wolves and the things that go bump in the night.

Bet you can't guess who I'm voting for.

(6) Milhouse made the following comment | Aug 17, 2008 3:34:08 PM | Permalink

Sorry, Noonan's attitude doesn't speak to me at all. As someone who in a less PC age would be referred to as a "rootless cosmopolitan", I see past the paeleoconservative veneer to the nativism that lies underneath. Rootedness, connection to soil, these are old-world European conservative values, and I don't mean that in a good way. It's the attitude that permeates Tolkien; it's what the Germans meant by blut und boden. It's the suspicion of the City by the Country, the feeling that city people aren't real people, that if people aren't plants they should at least be salmon, continually connected to their spawning grounds, and that wanderers have no true values, because values grow from the soil.

Even the modern "eat local" campaign ultimately derives from the same idea, that people's character is formed by the type of soil on and from which they live, that nurtures the plants they eat, and that the animals they eat eat. That, not concern for the environmental effect of transporting food long distances, is what really lies behind it. And in my opinion it's a pernicious notion.

(7) Milhouse made the following comment | Aug 17, 2008 3:41:55 PM | Permalink

And you're right that McCain is rooted, not to a place but to a culture and an idea; and he would be the same even if he'd spent his entire life on overseas naval bases and never set foot in the USA.

(8) Charlie (Colorado) made the following comment | Aug 17, 2008 4:09:03 PM | Permalink


(9) Beldar made the following comment | Aug 17, 2008 4:37:50 PM | Permalink

Drill Sgt, you're right of course. Thanks for the catch on the typo, which I've duly corrected.

(10) stan made the following comment | Aug 17, 2008 7:19:56 PM | Permalink

Noonan has demonstrated in several of her pieces that she has no understanding of the military at all. The worst example was her lament that the military lacked any of the "best and brightest" because Ivy Leaguers don't serve.

(11) Michael J. Myers made the following comment | Aug 17, 2008 8:21:31 PM | Permalink

Good post Beldar. The difference between Obama and McCain is that McCain has a "bottom" in the English sense of the word. There is a place that McCain starts from--and you know what it is.

I don't agree with much of what McCain has to say. But he is infinitely preferable to the amoeba that is Obama.

(12) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Aug 18, 2008 8:34:05 PM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: This is the best post you've written this year, and it's had to face some stiff competition.
Having applied the butter above, bring on the sledgehammer: I object. Why? First, there's nothing Obama can do to rectify his rootlessness. However true your objections to it are, they remind me of the old English condescension toward American colonials. Nor do I think rootlessness really hurts Obama as you think it does. Compare him to Colin Powell. Powell, like Obama, is black, but unlike Obama, served in the rootless, rooted way of the armed services. Yet look at Powell's service after his military career, and you will find one long disappointment. It's fair to say that Powell's service as Secretary of State is inferior to McC's as a Senator. More, William Kristol has credibly reported that Powell is on the verge of endorsing Obama, continuing on the declining trajectory he has followed ever since he was sworn in as Secretary of State. I conclude from this that the solidity of character that a military career can (but not necessarily must---see Wesley Clark for another example of a high commander whose post-military career has been one long slide) provide is not necessarily protection against folly.

No, Obama's faults are just good old fashioned character defects. "Character is destiny," said the ancient Greeks, and that is as true today as yesterday. His character fault is simple: he's obsessed by race, even while presenting himself as the "post-racial" candidate. But the moment trouble looms, the blackjack comes out and goes to work.

Obama may yet be elected as the best example of being not-Bush in the race. If so, the nation is in for some stiff tuition bills in the next four years.

Or so I think.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(13) stan made the following comment | Aug 19, 2008 8:02:37 AM | Permalink

Have to disagree with Mr. Koster. There is much that Obama could have done about his rootlessness. As an adult, he could have grown and matured. He could have developed a deeper understanding of and commitment to faith. He could have chosen a quality church. Instead, he gravitated to Rev. Wright, Father Pfleger, and Rev. Meeks. He chose to drink from the well of lies, slander, and hatred.

Of course, character ultimately counts. Beldar wasn't saying that a military career insures character. He said that McCain's character was formed by his father and grandfather and their adherence to a military code of duty, honor and country.

(14) Donna B. made the following comment | Aug 20, 2008 3:27:02 AM | Permalink

There is a non-military code of duty, honor, and country also.

Perhaps it is at the root of the military code -- the Scots-Irish "code".

It speaks to ability and pride and not to envy. It's telling that I perceive Obama as envious and punitive.

(15) James F. Sexton made the following comment | Aug 20, 2008 7:07:46 AM | Permalink

Someone really decided to put on their thinking cap, great going! It’s fantastic to see people really writing about the important things.

(16) The Ancient Mariner made the following comment | Aug 22, 2008 9:09:15 AM | Permalink

I don't know how to make the trackback work, but as another Navy brat, I thought I'd note my appreciation for your post, on which I commented here.

(17) vijay made the following comment | Aug 28, 2008 4:34:38 AM | Permalink

it is nice......

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