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The Art of Losing: Americans' Fixation on Winning Personalities

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In an infamous 2005 interview with NBA player Kevin Garnett, then on the stumbling Minnesota Timberwolves, the perennial All-Star was asked what drives him. He choked back tears and four times responded, "I'm losing," before concluding, "I won't ever accept losing, ever. No one ever'll be able to call me a loser to my face."

Garnett's distaste for losing--he called it his "biggest problem"--is a particularly American preoccupation. World War II saw to it that each European powerhouse experienced losing on a mass scale at least once. But for the United States' first two hundred years, we had a fairly spotless record in major conflicts. Losing was for the craven French, the tyrannical Germans, the overstretched English, all of colonized Africa and South America--anywhere but here, a nation of winners.

In the arena of war, winning not only refers to the final outcome, but to "winning over" the hearts and minds of the enemy country's civilians, as if points were allotted to such a subjective tug-of-war. And as Garnett--a winner by nearly anyone's standards--points out, "loser" is one of our most enduring, and perhaps harshest, non-profane ad hominem insults, far surpassing the recently chic "geek" or "nerd." The word connotes impotence, weakness, being unlovable (the exception being the rare breed of "lovable losers," typically found only on expansion baseball teams).

This profound dread of losing helps explain why we're still mired in Iraq and why Barack Obama seems poised to defeat John McCain.

Alongside stagflation, the scars of Viet Nam led to the 1970s malaise that elected Ronald Reagan, a sunnily optimistic winner if there ever were one. In an ailing country obsessed with rigid binaries of wins and losses and high school popularity contests, Reagan was the star quarterback and prom king who would--and did, at least for the elite--resuscitate our national self-image.

One would think that any serious contender for the presidency would be an out-and-out winner, but it's remarkable how few of them are in the conventional sense. Since the age of televised politics, only two presidents have been lifelong and presidency-long winners: Reagan and JFK. This year's crop of candidates was a mixed bag of policy wonks and government lifers who were, to put it kindly, not exactly winners. John McCain is a war hero, not quite a fair-haired winner (his likeability always rested on his candidness and supposed "maverick" status, not his innate charisma--see any stump speech). Hillary Clinton is fiercely intelligent and assiduous, certainly not a winner (unlike her husband, who was one until the mid-90's). Fred Thompson, who Republicans hoped would, like Reagan, translate his theatrical prowess into presidential capital, was far too hangdog and inept to be a winner on the national political stage. Rudy Giuliani was fervently convinced he was the biggest winner around, and his constant declarations to that effect turned off everyone else.

Enough has been said about Obama's preternatural powers of oration and capacity to inspire. What people are responding to, as they do with any magnetic leader, is the suggestion implicit in his golden aura: if you follow me, you, too, will win. The parallels between late-70s America and today's climate of military and cabinet-level disgrace, economic chaos, surging gas prices, and low morale are also well-documented. But what sets Obama apart from Reagan and America's pantheon of political winners is that he's that most beloved of species: an underdog winner (at least as far as his campaign narrative tells it). Obama dealt with an absent father and racism, and has clearly triumphed over both.

The next president must tell Americans what they know but don't want to hear: we lost in Iraq, a fact about which McCain seems to be in denial. Even if we somehow create a stable, non-puppet democracy, it won't be worth the price in human life and money that could have been better spent domestically. But only Obama, who has emerged from the crucible of loss a natural winner, can convince the U.S. that this doesn't make us losers. McCain is associated with the painful humiliation of Viet Nam, and apart from all the other historical reasons, his greatest hurdle in winning this election is a perspective far dourer than his opponent's platform of hope; even McCain's wry sense of irony, his central uplifting personality plank, is born of a cynical world-weariness. While perhaps more realistic and the result of more political and life experience than Obama possesses, such tempered aspirations don't play well with victory-minded Americans. The need to add a winner to Republican ticket explains Sarah Palin as much as any other cynical demographic pandering.

George W. Bush, a winner only technically (every victory has been meticulously crafted and hand-delivered to him by others), assumed that winning Iraq would come as easily as everything else had in his life. For the first time he met real defeat, and his only solace, it seems, comes from the myopic belief that history will prove him a winner. Obama's bootstrap-biography and rationally sanguine temperament, the flip-side of Bush's entitlement and intransigent faith, will sell voters on the idea that we need not be tainted by this inevitable loss, and, in November, will likely make him the winner.

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