One side benefit of the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush is that his administration put in bad odor some very popular notions about leadership. Greatness, certitude, vision—these noxious attributes have traditionally been qualities we believed ourselves to be seeking when hiring a president.
Yet greatness, certitude, and vision have gotten rigorous workouts over this decade, and all three have emerged sucking wind. If the charges of pusillanimity exchanged by the McCain-Palin and Obama-Biden campaign seem even more desperate and non-lethal than usual this year, that may be because the election is turning on qualities of humility, nuance, and realism.
Not that either of the candidates appear to realize this. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) breath out greatness, certitude, and vision the way the rest of us exhale carbon dioxide. Maybe they're right to do that. One of them will be immensely rewarded come November.
Yet both seem to perform best when courting ambiguity. McCain's long, bone-tired slog from early 2007's also-ran to early 2008's Republican nominee was a Chuck Wepner feat, a model of regular-guy endurance rather than heroic presence.
Obama's most memorable contribution to political rhetoric this year—his widely applauded speech on race in the midst of the Jeremiah Wright controversy—was memorable precisely because it's on-the-one-hand-this-on-the-other-that structure lacked the spine-stiffening declamation listeners were expecting. Both pose as cautious realists with regard to war generally and the war in Iraq in particular, though the war effort's recent successes have been Obama's misfortune.
If your taste in presidents runs more toward Warren G. Harding than Teddy Roosevelt—if you treasure caretakers of the nation's fat happiness rather than giants who purchase greatness with the people's blood and treasure—2008 is a grim year. Here's how the two candidates stack up in their respective abilities to keep the heroic qualities to a minimum, scored on a red-yellow-green continuum:
McCain's self-deprecation is a national treasure, his suffering in Vietnam a wonderful rebuke to all but the very bravest among us. To see John McCain stoop for an interview, shamble through a stump speech, is to know that he'd rather be a dead hero than a living coward.
Barack Obama is the candidate loved by everybody, even cynical members of Generation X. So his is a pious, petulant type of greatness. McCain's narrative and Obama's both follow the template of the reformation of a Bogart cynic. But Obama's ready-to-film 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father turns on more precious plot points. A death in the family, in one incident, diverts young Barack from his quest to know his father, and he reflects on how things might have turned out differently, writing, "well, maybe it would have relieved certain pressures that had built up inside me, showing me a different community, allowing my ambitions to travel a narrower, more personal course, so that in the end I might have…given myself over to stocks and bonds and the pull of respectability." The book teems with such what-if-Hitler-had-gone-to-art-school moments.
Neither McCain nor Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) express any misgivings about the bipartisan campaign finance reform act that popularly bears their names. McCain remains confident not just about the Iraq troop surge but about the wisdom of the original invasion. Nor has his support for the wars on drugs and real estate market corrections ever flagged in the face of contrary evidence. When they say McCain is about experience, they mean McCain is in spite of experience.
Obama deserves credit for being comfortable with nuance—a rare quality in Democrats, who fear it is the way Jimmy Carter lies. He believes questions of what some consider bedrock truth to be above his pay grade, speaks of not being able to distinguish "between faith and mere folly, between faith and simple endurance." So his FISA reauthorization vote wasn't a flip-flop, it was a reimagining.
John McCain's heroic 2008 campaign has demonstrated that he's the guy America wanted in 2000. It must pain the always-pained nominee to see accusations of cynicism thrown at him by his fair-weather media friends of Y2K. For while McCain is pledged to combat cynicism, it is this blessed quality that has been most clearly instilled in him by decades of senatorial process. When he gets an idea across, it's still a bad one, but McCain's life-fatigue is our best hope for safety from seeing new presidential visions put into practice.
Energy, education, work, the weather, cities, the countryside, sick children, sick mothers, joblessness, hopelessness, interest rates: Barack Obama has a plan for all of it, and will have no opposition in Congress to stop him.
Who will be the greatest, surest, and most visionary? And will both candidates' penchant for thinking twice prove to be a welcome check on these leaderly qualities? Fight with us to put lipstick on the audacious hope!