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It’s a Daddy Thing — Campaign ’08 Edition « The Washington Independent

This year’s presidential nominees have both penned autobiographies exploring their family roots. Sen. John McCain coauthored "Faith of My Fathers," tracing his initial rebellion and ultimate embrace of his dad’s military traditions, while Sen. Barack Obama meditated on the role of an absent parent in "Dreams From My Father." The books’ emphasis reveals that both politicians have "father issues," argues my friend Eli Sanders in a new essay, that gamely plays the father card on the presidential contenders.

Starting with the Obama side, Sanders plucks a striking quote from "Dreams," when the young Obama wrestles with his feelings on a visit to Kenya in search of information about his father’s side of the family:

What if the truth only disappointed, and my father’s death meant nothing, and his leaving me behind meant nothing, and the only tie that bound me to him, or to Africa, was a name, a blood type or white people’s scorn?

Sanders thinks Obama’s vexing quest to engage and understand his dad, even if only through memory, follows the worldview of enlightenment liberals:

[Thus Obama is a] man who exemplifies the liberal ideal, operating on the belief that difficulty will be overcome through honest interaction between interior pain and outside realities, and committed to serious intellectual inquiry but ready for the possibility that it will only disappoint…. [The candid, emotional book is] a great achievement and now serves as a powerful antidote to the conservative meme about Obama being a shallow changeling with no fixed core. At Obama’s core, the book convincingly shows, is a deep yearning to have had a father to teach him what it meant to be Barack Obama, and a deep pride at having learned to be that father to himself.

That sounds nice, but a bit too neat, since Sanders does not detail what *he thinks it means *to be Barack Obama — or even how Obama transcended that yearning to teach himself. (To be fair, one response is that Obama’s books and visionary speeches, including his controversial address on fatherhood, already cover that ground.) Sanders goes on to dissect McCain’s writing, and then issues the conclusion to this political book report:

The books, taken together, do a surprisingly better job of providing one with a feel for the candidates than the current blizzard of news coverage. They also suggest a clear choice of daddy issues in this election.

On one side is a man who sought to understand his father, move on, and become his own person—a man who in his early 30s looked inside himself and found a voice, and a memoir, that were both ahead of their time.

On the other side is a man who sought his father’s approval, failed in moments to live up to his father’s ideals and continues to this day to want to be a man cut from the family mold—a man who late in life got a friend to help him write a book that sounds like just about every other made-to-order political biography of a once-wayward military hero. (emphasis added)

Or, as the political shorthand puts it: change versus more of the same.

Most commentators say that Obama is a better writer than McCain. That view is so established in conventional wisdom, in fact, that it even made for Saturday Night Live fodder. The books’ content, however, is obviously more important than any literary skills involved.

Indeed, it is worth focusing on whether Obama’s inclusive family journey, now embedded in his unusual campaign for president, is a better framework for the kind of nation voters want, as Sanders argues, than a worldview informed by McCain’s conflicted relationship with traditional authority — a pol who played the loud rebel role, but always fell into line when it was time to work for the man.

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