Will the Real McCain Please Stand Up? (Or, In Which I Get All Pomo)

October 17, 2008

Apparently, Christopher Buckley’s endorsement of Obama has reopened debate about what it means to be an “Obamacon.”

For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to touch Larison’s comment that, “There is basically no positive case for Obama, because I don’t think a conservative can actually make one, except to say that he might do slightly less damage than another Republican” because if you aren’t already convinced that there can be, I see little that I can do to change your mind. Instead, I want to focus on what he goes on to say:

“Buckley’s remarks on McCain are interesting in what they tell us about the pervasive nature of the McCain myth: McCain used to be authentic, you see, but now he is not (not true–he has always been the same person!); he showed tremendous bravery in backing the “surge” (not true–it was enormously popular among GOP regulars and primary voters!); McCain has changed (see the first point). . . . What few seem willing to accept is that McCain has always been like this, and his past admirers have blinded themselves to his flaws because they found him useful or were swayed by his biography, and until very recently most have had no problem with McCain’s flaws.”

I touched on this briefly in a comment at Eunomia, but I want to take the time to expand on what I wrote.

For all practical purposes, it does not matter which McCain is the “real” McCain. If we’re willing to concede that McCain 2000 is different than McCain 2008, then we’re faced with the fact that at least one of these McCains must be inauthentic. Of course the existence of an inauthentic McCain narrative would seem to imply that the present incarnation is the only one plausibly authentic; McCain 2000 could not have truthfully dabbled in false narratives.

There seems to be little dispute that the two McCains are different. With most data points conceded as common, the perception of authenticity/inauthenticity is left entirely to the individual and his decision of how he will “read” the data. Thus, accepting a change from 2000, we have two common alternatives: A) the narrative in which McCain is destroyed by his campaign staff and advisors, sacrificing the “authentic” McCain 2000 for a shoot-the-moon strategy seen as their last best hope for victory; or B) the narrative in which McCain’s staffers and advisors are merely complicit in ripping off the Maverick “mask” and revealing McCain’s “true” self as McCain 2008.

I don’t pretend to know which alternative (if either) is objectively true; that would involve a gratuitous level of armchair psychoanalysis of a man I have never met. But I fall into the same trap Larison points out as fairly common among Obamacons (admittedly, I may not qualify as one; I began as an Obama supporter over two years ago, when my political views were more in line with his and my political/philosophical transformation was still potential): I want narrative A to be true, even at the risk of denying reality.

It is simply more compelling—it is tragedy. McCain becomes more than “John McCain.” He is an archetype—he suddenly begins to resemble an Oedipus, a Kreon, a Pentheus. The “fall” of McCain can teach us something; it is drama; it is in conversation with the Western conception of rise, hubris, and fall. If McCain 2008 has been forced upon McCain, it is traditional. And, no matter how far he may fall, so long as he is not ripped limb from limb, there is the possibility of Oedipal redemption.

Even Roger Kimball, holdout for McCain’s victory though he is, seems to adhere to this view of the man:

“But I have to wonder whether the real problem is that McCain refuses to play according to the Democratic “narrative” and accept that his appointed role as “maverick” is to lose gracefully and then disappear.”

Here, there is no comment on which McCain is authentic, but the opinion that our conception of McCain 2000 was written by someone other than McCain, and therefore forced upon him; because McCain 2008 is defined in terms of McCain 2000, this persona has also been forced upon him. While the Democrats, and not his advisors, are destroying him, he is being destroyed rather than destroying himself. It is entirely out of his control; it does not matter which fork in the road he takes, Fate will eventually find him.

But if narrative B is true, we learn nothing, except (possibly) that man is petty and weak. As Helen Rittelmeyer quotes Raymond Guess:

“One has failed to experience the tragedy if one sees only one’s friend and fellow actor up there on the stage parading around in an odd mask. One has also failed if one thinks that it really is Oedipus up there, that the blood dripping down from his eyes is real blood, etc.”

If all we see is a mask pulled from McCain’s face, there is no tragedy; there is no lesson; it is, if anything, farcical.

This campaign has become our national Dionysian festival. And if the audience chooses to suspend disbelief and become engrossed in the drama unfolding onstage—if only because there is more to gain in this way than not—then I have no objection.

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