After all the pontificating on TV, in the end it didn't come down to sideshow jive like the Reverend Wright Imbroglio or the Great Sniper Fire Lie. It didn't come down to micro-demographics, or gas prices, or the war in Iraq. Incredibly enough, it didn't even come down to the issues of race and gender. No -- in the end, I believe, it all came down to a hard-to-pinpoint, rarely discussed, but desperately important matter: the personal authenticity of two human beings.
Let me digress for a second, though it's not really digressing. The impetus for this piece actually came this morning, as I tried to keep my eyes open watching John McCain on TV. I do not recommend this as a morning regimen. Try it. You'll feel an overwhelming desire to crawl back under the covers. To the degree that you can force yourself to watch him sleepwalking around the dais and spouting empty syllables, you'll find yourself wondering about peripheral issues. Like: why does a man who seems to be simmering with rage use the phrase "my friends" so compulsively? What's the real skinny on that lacquered blond lobbyist? And how did they finesse the payoff he got from the Keating Five? Somehow, the man himself is just...not there.
He's a Wooden Soldier.
But that's the thing about McCain. It's not just that his so-called "straight talk" is obviously badly-bent nonsense. Stylistically as well as politically, he's everything wrong, everything wooden, everything false. Like Clinton, he seems to be missing a core, and that lack of authenticity makes every word he says immediately forgettable (unless it's so dumb as to lodge sideways in the mind, like the Hundred Years War threat or his Bomb Iran joke.)
Unfortunately for Clinton, she campaigned as a Wooden Soldier, too.
By the seventeenth time she claimed to have found, or re-found, or re-re-found her true "voice" -- first she was the Imperious and Inevitable One, then she was the nice-nice I'm-So-Honored One, followed (a day later!) by the Hateful Vicious Shame-On-You One, and still later the Weirdly Sarcastic The Skies-Will-Open One, and then the Shot-and-a-Beer Working-Class One, so gol-dang down-home that you expected the next photo-op to show her smoking crystal meth in a trailer park -- until finally, with the Gas-Tax-Holiday Fake Populist One, she exhausted all the possibilities -- and exhausted the patience of America, too.
Meanwhile, Obama remained Obama. Quiet when called for, inspiring when given the chance, and once in a while a little obnoxious (remember when he told Hillary "you're likable enough?" I mean, admittedly she kind of asked for it, but it was pretty gratuitous.) In short: a human being. For me, a pivotal moment--unremarked-on by the robo-pundits on TV -- came in Obama's second Reverend Wright speech. I'm paraphrasing here, but he said it was crucial to remember the core meaning of his campaign, "even if the messenger is flawed."
Even if the messenger is flawed.
Here's a game that's zany fun for the whole family: try to imagine Senator Clinton saying such a thing.
That's right: never happen -- unless...
Unless Mark Penn told her that polling showed there was some kind of Flawed-Messenger Demographic out there yet to be milked for votes.
And here's zany family game #2: try to imagine Obama getting in front of the TV cameras on a night that gutted his entire campaign, pasting a transparently phony smile on his face, and crowing "it's on to the White House!" as Michelle and the kids fought off tears on the podium behind him...
I think people relate deeply to the concept of The Flawed Messenger, because who among us is not one--in our family-life, our work, our spiritual pursuits? Being a Flawed Messenger is innately heroic (the Messenger part) but also deeply humbling (the Flawed part) -- all in all, a perfectly respectable thing to be. And I believe that on some psychic level, people torn between Clinton and Obama felt more comfortable voting for a man who confessed to being a Flawed Messenger -- not just in the speech, but in the way he carried himself.
Clinton's ultimate gift, among many, to Obama was obviously the Gas Tax Holiday. It nailed down her credentials as a Wooden Soldier -- the epitome of the old-fashioned, say-anything, 20th-century politician. She went once too often to the voters-are-dullards well, and it finally pissed them off.
It's a mistake McCain will make, too, because like Clinton he just can't help it. Part of it is generational. Clinton and McCain came of age in a Nixonian universe -- and there has never been a more Wooden Soldier than Nixon. (In my own personal dictionary, when you look up Wooden Soldier, there's a photo of Nixon doing his ghoulish two-handed V-For-Victory salute.) And part of it is a choice, based on an outmoded belief that voters want an Impregnable Persona instead of a genuine human being.
But, in the early part of the 21st Century, that choice is dead wrong. The Democratic runoff proved it -- and (you heard it here, folks!) it will be proved once again, thank God, in November, when Obama defeats John McCain and becomes our next president.