As a memoirist who teaches first person writing, listening to the speeches and back stories of politicians in the presidential election and reading the authorized press about the candidates seems shockingly similar to my memoir classes. The first assignment I give my students is to chronicle the worst, most humiliating thing that ever happened to them. So far most of the people on the national stage (with campaign strategists as ghost editors?) have shaped their life experiences into a coherent narrative filled with idiosyncratic details and dialogue illuminating a vulnerable protagonist who has gone through an important, human struggle we can immediately relate to and identify with. The much-maligned myopic confessional genre turns out to be an all-American staple, and selling your story the latest political necessity.
At the Republican convention, John McCain played up his compelling past as a war hero, relating how in Vietnam, when his plane was shot down, he was captured as a prisoner of war, and held from 1967 to 1973, experiencing torture, leaving him with scars and lifelong physical limitations. He told the cheering crowd that when given the chance to go home because his father was an admiral, he stayed four more years to avoid special treatment. The camera showed pictures of his smiling gray-haired mother, whom he called "ninety-six years young."
McCain's surprising choice for running mate, Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, comes with her own colorful narrative. The former beauty queen and fierce basketball player nicknamed "Sarah Barracuda" married her fisherman high school sweetheart. "Just your average hockey mom," was how she described herself as the TV audience saw pictures of her kids, including the fifth child she had four months ago, a son with Down syndrome, along with her 17-year-old pregnant daughter.
The wildly wealthy pretty blond Cindy McCain focused on how she combated world poverty by adopting her daughter, Bridget, from Bangladesh. It reminded me how even the elitist-seeming Yalie George Bush had come with a black sheep vulnerability -- his older sister had died of leukemia; his father and older brother Jeb overshadowed the one-time bad student and partier. During his election he'd told a USA Today reporter he was a "little guy" standing five foot eleven to his brother Jeb's six foot four. Meanwhile the car accident where Laura Bush accidentally killed a high school friend is so well known it's fodder for a current soon-to-be-bestselling novel.
Of course Republicans didn't corner the market on hard-luck pasts or swashbuckling survivor stories. The Democratic convention kicked off with Caroline Kennedy referencing her late father and uncle, both tragically killed in the line of duty. Then Senator Ted Kennedy showed up, despite his recent treatment for a malignant brain cancer. Not only that but the next day newspapers reported he'd also had kidney stones.
With her two adorable daughters looking on, Michelle Obama next relayed the saga of her South Side of Chicago childhood. Her father was diagnosed with MS in his thirties; she and her brother shared a bedroom, divided by a curtain. Vice presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son spoke of the car accident that killed Biden's first wife and daughter, how Biden stayed by the bedside of his two injured sons, and later the three of them all married his second wife, Jill. Furthermore, Senator Biden admitted to stuttering as a kid. His Irish Catholic mom insisted he bloody the nose of the bully so he could walk to school forevermore. The camera panned to his gray-haired mom (whom Obama called "Mama Biden,") proudly nodding in agreement.
Introduced by her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, former Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary addressed her supporters' heartbreak, alluding to her defeat in the primary. Her dazzling orange outfit, and quip about her "sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits" seemed to spell out "I am a survivor," as it to offer a lesson on how to be a team player in the face of public defeat. Similarly, Al Gore's reference to knowing something about close elections turned his painful loss four years ago into a self-deprecating inside joke that made him more likable.
"No Drama Obama" shared a dramatic saga too. With pictures in the background, we learned the mixed race child grew up with a single mother (as did former president Bill Clinton, making an amateur shrink wonder if playing man in the house to an ambitious husband-less mom creates visions of grandeur.) He told us that his grandparents helped raise him, his mother woke him up to study at four A.M. Later he watched her die of cancer while she argued with insurance companies over her medical bills.
Cynics could point out that books by the Kennedy's, Clintons, Obama, Biden, McCain, Laura Bush -- and her daughter -- have been previously packaged, and published as bestsellers, and that reducing one's entire biography to its sentimental Charles Dickens' sound bites for the U.S. public is as reductive and cliche as commercial branding. We could blame the Internet, reality television, and the blogosphere for feeding us too much information as instant gratification. As a feminist and left-wing Democratic who agrees with Philip Lopate's feeling that most confessionals don't confess enough, I'm finding it thrilling that our country's leaders, and their families, feel the need to explain who they are in a specific way that's palatable to my undergraduate students, blacks, women, and Alaskans suddenly following this election closely. It has to be a good sign that forty million citizens watched Obama's speech jump start the presidential race, earning better ratings than the Olympics.
It's fascinating and instructive how personal the political is getting in this election. Personally I'm glad that like me, the younger candidates admit to trying drugs (though Obama was accused of overstating his experimentation and Palin toked when it was legal in Alaska) but I competitively fear that at my age of 47, Obama, and the 44-year-old Palin have more impressive jam-packed resumes than I do. As someone childless, I worry that the American dream necessitates trotting out offspring. (Can someone without kids run for office?) I'm gratified that the disclosures of anguish and failure reinforces my psychoanalysts' advice that -in writing and in day to day existence - it's best to "lead the least secretive life you can." That's the rationalization I tell my Michigan clan (of Republicans and Independents) who hate when I reveal too much about their personal lives.
But mostly I'm intrigued by the universal counter intuitive metaphor that, although we think our strengths and skills are our best qualities, it's actually our worst losses that make us knowable, special, real, popular, and perhaps, even winners.