IN ANNOUNCING his candidacy for president on David Letterman's show last week, John McCain used the word "wasted" in reference to American lives lost in Iraq. The next day, apologizing profusely, he said he should have used the word "sacrifice." McCain was doing more than avoiding the pit into which John F. Kerry fell with the "botched joke" that seemed to disrespect the troops. Indeed, McCain was protecting the core meaning of the narrative around which he has built his life, the story that will define his presidential campaign. Each candidate has such a story, and together they tell us a lot about what America has become.
John McCain's political career is built on the 5 1/2 years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison. It is not just that his exemplary fortitude was so powerfully displayed by that experience. Far more significantly, McCain returned from Vietnam as a rare figure of sacrificial redemption, a man who had not only survived an ordeal that destroyed so many of his generation, but who had been ennobled by it. His "straight talk" began with his defiance of brutal North Vietnamese prison guards. He was decidedly seen as a victim, not a perpetrator (his role as a bomber of civilian infrastructure was forgotten). In McCain, America gratefully saw a good warrior whose suffering mitigated the guilt that otherwise came from America's own shameful brutality.
McCain showed that the war could be a source of virtue, salving its absurdity. (Kerry showed the opposite, dooming him.) If McCain has consistently been the most militaristic politician of his time, enthusiastic in his support of the Bush war in Iraq, critical only of Bush's failure to send even more US troops into the maw, it is because his image is carefully constructed to embody the magnificence of sacrifice offered in war's name. For McCain to use the word "waste" is to contradict the very meaning of his own life -- and the pro-war saga that he hopes will galvanize a demoralized nation, carrying him to the White House.
Few candidates have such a compelling story, but each one is the central figure in an at least implicit narrative, touching on a crucial national conflict. The political contest is, above all, a competition of stories : John Edwards and poverty, Mitt Romney and a minority religion, Rudolph Giuliani and 9/11 -- you can hear the blocks being winched into place.
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Hillary Rodham Clinton's, obviously, is the story of the American woman, and her campaign draws its electricity from the positive-negative polarity of an unresolved national ambivalence about issues of gender, sex, and privacy. Perhaps privacy is the key to the drama already unfolding, with Hillary Clinton's evident qualifications set against imagined scenarios involving her husband. If Bill Clinton's indiscretions traumatized the nation, it was because the common good depends on a proper balance between the private and public realms, a balance his behavior destroyed. The political arrival of women as equal citizens, meanwhile, depends exactly on privacy, newly upheld by courts as a near-absolute value. (Roe v. Wade protects not abortion, but a woman's privacy.) What makes Hillary Clinton's story riveting is whether she can protect her privacy -- and, by extension, everyone's -- without seeming to have something to hide. In a nation where privacy is under assault from every direction, the stakes in Clinton's campaign are a universal currency.
Barack Obama's is the tale of two races. Slavery remains the unhealed American wound (with incarceration rates of young black men as that wound's gape), and any black political candidate must play out that drama. Yet Obama, as the son of a Kenyan and a white American, seems degrees removed from the slavery story, which may account both for early white enthusiasm and an African-American skepticism that only now seems to be lifting. But who is to say Obama is untouched by the tragic legacy? One readily imagines what it cost the millions of Africans kidnapped by slave traders, but the ravaged continent paid a price, as well -- and still does. African losses, too, must be reckoned with. If Barack Obama succeeds in his campaign of reconciliation and hope, the results can be transcendent, and not only for this nation.
The United States, with its war, racism, sexual restlessness, religious confusion, and economic disparity, is a nest of festering conflicts. Politics is the set of stories we tell ourselves as a way of seeking resolution. The campaign already shows how the beginnings of those stories are usually happy and why their endings rarely are.